Chinese Painter Whose Works Fooled Manhattan Galleries Is Charged With Fraud

A Chinese painter, whose works imitating such famous artists as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko sold for millions and set off a major scandal in the New York art world, has been charged with participating in a $33 million fraud scheme.

A federal indictment (PDF) unsealed on Monday in the U.S. Southern District of New York accuses Pei-Shen Qian of conspiring to create fake works, including his signing of the names of famous artists to paintings he created in their style. Qian sold the paintings to Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz, who helped create fake histories for the paintings before selling them to major New York art galleries, according to the indictment.

Qian, reached by telephone in Shanghai, said he was aware of the indictment but had not seen the details; he declined further comment. Bergantinos Diaz and his brother Jesus, who was also charged, were arrested in Spain last week.

Qian’s role in the scandal emerged last year after dealer Glafira Rosales pleaded guilty to selling more than 60 fake works—most through the now-shuttered Knoedler & Co. gallery on the Upper East Side—all made by an unknown forger living in Queens. The prestigious gallery sold the paintings to wealthy buyers, including John Howard, who runs the private-equity firm Irving Place Capital Partners, and Domenico De Sole, chairman of Tom Ford International.

In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek in December, Qian maintained he was innocent, even while acknowledging that he made paintings resembling works by Pollock, Rothko, and other famous modern painters. “Nobody would take them seriously,” he said. Bergantinos had insisted the forgeries were for fans of the masters who couldn’t afford the genuine articles, according to Qian.

From 1994 to 2009, two New York art galleries paid $33.2 million for the fake works, according to the indictment, but the alleged forger appears to have received relatively little of the proceeds; the indictment details about $65,400 paid to Qian from December 2005 to February 2008. Qian at first received several hundred dollars for each work, the indictment says, but he demanded more money from Bergantinos after he saw one of his works on sale at an art show in Manhattan for far more than what he was getting. The painter has said that his commissions topped out at $3,000 apiece.

Qian is also accused of having lied to FBI agents who questioned him about his role in the conspiracy by claiming to be unfamiliar with the names of some artists, including artists whose names he allegedly signed on paintings he had created. “The FBI said they were done by the hands of a genius,” he said back in December. “Well, that’s me. How strange it feels!”

—Dune Lawrence, Wenxin Fan

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