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Crime & Litigation

Spanish art fraud suspect fights US extradition

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Written by AFP wire service   
Tuesday, 22 April 2014 12:18
MADRID (AFP) – A Spaniard suspected of perpetrating one of the world's biggest art frauds has been freed ahead of a legal fight over his extradition to the United States.

The National Court released Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz after he refused voluntary extradition over the $33 million (45 million euro), two-decade scam, court sources said Tuesday.

U.S. investigators say he was a leading figure in the sale of fake masterpieces by artists including Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, works that were actually done by a Chinese painter he had met on a Manhattan street corner.

Spanish officers arrested Bergantinos at a hotel in the southern city of Seville on Friday, acting on a U.S. detention request, a police spokesman said.

Bergantinos, aged in his mid-50s, was caught by surprise after checking in at the four-star NH Viapol hotel and had to undergo a medical check after apparently fainting following the arrest, police sources said.

He testified on Monday from Seville to Judge Fernando Andreu of the National Court in Madrid.

His brother Jesus Angel Bergantinos Diaz, 65, who was detained in the northwestern Spanish city of Lugo in connection with the scam, was taken to Madrid to appear in person before the same judge.

The two brothers refused to be voluntarily extradited and were ordered to surrender their passports and remain in Spain pending extradition hearings, court sources said.

The National Court will preside over the extradition proceedings, they said. Any extradition order must then be ratified by Spain's cabinet.

The two brothers and the Chinese painter, Pei Shen Qian, 75, were also indicted over the forgeries on Monday by federal prosecutors in the United States. Qian is believed to have fled to China.

U.S. prosecutors said Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz would buy up canvases of old paintings at flea markets, and stain newer canvases with tea bags, which he gave to Qian to create what have been dubbed "the Fake Works."

Among the bogus works were those purportedly by Rothko, Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Motherwell.

In September last year, Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz' girlfriend, Mexican-U.S. art dealer Glafira Rosales, pleaded guilty before a U.S. federal judge to selling counterfeit paintings to two of New York's top galleries.

Spanish police said Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz was aged 55. The U.S. authorities gave his age as 58.



Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 April 2014 12:44

Art dealer sues Maryland auction house over missing painting

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Written by CATHERINE SAUNDERS-WATSON, Auction Central News International   
Monday, 21 April 2014 16:32
Circa-1917 oil painting by Ellsworth Woodward (Louisiana, 1861-1939), auctioned for $21,510 at Sloans & Kenyon's, Feb. 17, 2013. Image courtesy of Sloans & KenyonNEW ORLEANS – When you boil it right down, there are two basic types of property that turn up at the center of court cases worldwide: tangible and intellectual. These days, legal ownership of intellectual property can be established rather quickly. US Copyright Law has been demystified with respect to photo copyright, for example, and now decrees that, unless a binding contract takes precedence, ownership of a photograph belongs to the person whose finger pressed the shutter release to capture the image. This newly defined aspect of intellectual property law was globally publicized when actor Bradley Cooper took a “selfie” of himself and a gaggle of other stars at the 86th Academy Awards in March. Who owned the image whose potential value was estimated to be no less than two million dollars? “Cooper,” said legal pundits who weighed in on the matter online.

But what about the ownership of tangible goods purchased at auction? At exactly what nanosecond does the winning bidder become the actual legal owner? It has always been widely assumed and accepted within the trade that ownership of an item purchased at auction transfers immediately upon the drop of the auctioneer’s hammer and the deal-sealing verbal declaration, “Sold!” That method works like a Swiss clock 99.9 percent of the time. But what happens if the item purchased at auction goes missing while still in the physical possession of the auction house? A legal squabble involving New Orleans art dealer/appraiser Amanda Winstead and Bethesda, Md.-based auction house Sloans & Kenyon is bringing the question into sharper focus.

The facts are, on Feb. 17, 2013, Sloans & Kenyon auctioned a number of artworks from the collection of retired attorney Robert S. Fastov. Among the works offered was an attractive Ellsworth Woodward (Louisiana, 1861-1939) painting depicting the iconic Lotus Fountain on the former campus of Newcomb College in New Orleans’ Garden District. Estimated at $15,000-$25,000, the painting sold for $18,000 plus a 19.5% buyer’s premium, making the total purchase price $21,510. Winstead was the winning bidder.

Immediately after the auction, Winstead sent off a check to pay for the painting and made arrangements for a Maryland shipping firm to collect the painting at Sloans & Kenyon’s upscale Chevy Chase gallery. That’s when the first sign of trouble surfaced, said Winstead’s attorney, Lisa A. Montgomery.

“(The shipper) was turned away by Sloans & Kenyon,” Montgomery said. “When Winstead contacted Sloans & Kenyon, she was told various and sometimes conflicting stories: the auction house had the painting, the painting was lost but they were searching for it, the painting was mis-lotted in the inventory, they were removing a wall next to storage racks to search for the painting…”

In an interview with Auction Central News, Stephanie Kenyon, owner and president of Sloans & Kenyon Auctioneers and Appraisers, explained the artwork’s disappearance more succinctly: “It went missing, and we don’t know where it is.”

Kenyon said she believes a porter may have misfiled the painting. “This is a very large facility – 40,000 square feet on two floors. We don’t know what happened to the painting, but we don’t think it was stolen. We’ve reviewed our security camera footage and found nothing suspicious. It’s entirely possible that it may have become conjoined with another, larger painting. We have a part-time staff member whose current task is to search for the painting.”

Kenyon stressed that Sloans & Kenyon never negotiated the check that Winstead sent to pay for her purchase. “We held the check while we searched for the painting because we had hopes that it would turn up. I don’t know whether our accounting office returned the check to [Winstead] or not, but it would no longer be valid anyway, due to the amount of time that has passed,” she said.

Winstead was not satisfied with the explanation she received from the auction house and, in August, filed a lawsuit against Stephanie Kenyon and Sloans & Kenyon. In the suit, it was alleged that the painting had not been misplaced, but rather, was “sold…to a third party for a greater amount than what Plaintiffs agreed to pay.”

The defendants did not respond to the lawsuit, said Kenyon, because “it was improperly filed in the State of Louisiana (as opposed to Maryland).” Resultedly, the case was heard as a default in the Civil District Court in New Orleans. Judge Paula Brown tried the case and, on Oct. 31st, rendered a $44,940.52 judgment in favor of Winstead.

Attorney Montgomery told Auction Central News that the basis for the case was rightful ownership. “The law governing auction sales in all 50 states establishes that title to the lot passes to the highest bidder at the fall of the hammer. By law, Winstead became the owner of the Woodward painting on February 17, 2013 when she entered the highest bid for the painting, and Judge Paula Brown made this finding.”

In order to collect on the judgment, Winstead hired Rockville, Maryland, lawyer Scott N. Bergman, who took legal steps to garnish a Sloans & Kenyon account at EagleBank to satisfy the Louisiana judgment. To date, no funds have been accessed, but according to Attorney Montgomery, “…the bottom line is $44,940.52 was legally seized or ‘frozen’ from one of Ms. Kenyon’s accounts effective 3/31/2014. [Kenyon] has to fight the seizure in court in Maryland in order to have the funds ‘released’ from the seizure.”

Mongomery continued: “The bank has to file an answer to the Writs of Garnishment no later than May 1, 2014…(and) must also deposit the funds into the Registry of the Court.” Montgomery noted that the deposit of funds might not be required if Kenyon files papers to contest the seizure.

Kenyon said she only recently learned of the attempt to garnish funds. “Two days ago the bank told us they had been contacted about a garnishment,” Kenyon said. “We now have 30 days to appear before a judge with a motion to nullify the Louisiana judgment. If the judgment is nullified, the garnishment will be nullified, as well.”

After the case of the missing Ellsworth painting has been resolved, Kenyon may find herself in court again, but as the plaintiff rather than the defendant. She said that upon her attorney’s recommendation she is considering filing a defamation suit against Winstead.

“Something like this could damage our reputation. The allegation that we did something else with the painting, that we sold it privately for a huge amount of money, is simply false,” Kenyon said. “Why would we do such a thing? We still think the painting is going to turn up, and when it does, we’ll let Ms. Winstead know. She will have right of first refusal.”

As it stands, the scorecard on this case is looking rather bleak. Winstead is without a painting she bid on 14 months ago, Sloans & Kenyon has lost out on the commission it would have made from the sale of the painting, and both Winstead and the auction house have incurred what one would imagine are substantial legal fees. The winner – if there is one – seems to be Robert Fastov, who consigned the now-missing painting to auction.

“He has been compensated,” Kenyon confirmed.

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Copyright 2014 Auction Central News International. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Circa-1917 oil painting by Ellsworth Woodward (Louisiana, 1861-1939), auctioned for $21,510 at Sloans & Kenyon's, Feb. 17, 2013. Image courtesy of Sloans & Kenyon
Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 April 2014 12:20

Bulgarian police return smuggled antiquities to museum

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Written by Associated Press   
Tuesday, 15 April 2014 10:41
One of the many priceless treasures held in the collection of the National Historical Museum in Bulgaria, this 4th-century gold wreath and ring came from the burial site of an Odrysian aristocrat at the Golyamata Mogila tumulus, situated between the villages of Zlatinitsa and Malomirovo in the Yambol region. Photo by Ann Wuyts, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) - Bulgarian police have handed the remnants of three ancient necklaces to the country's most important museum after seizing the artifacts from smugglers who looted them from archaeological sites.

Police gave the artifacts to the National Museum of History in Sofia, whose collection is among the largest in the Balkans. The museum's collection includes items dating back to prehistoric times.

The museum's director, Bozhidar Dimitrov, says the broken jewelry pieces are among the oldest such items ever discovered in Bulgaria. The pieces date to the third millennium B.C.

Dimitrov says the remnants will be restored and shown to the public.

Police offered no details on how they found and seized the items, nor any suggestion on how the smugglers had intended to sell them abroad.

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Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

One of the many priceless treasures held in the collection of the National Historical Museum in Bulgaria, this 4th-century gold wreath and ring came from the burial site of an Odrysian aristocrat at the Golyamata Mogila tumulus, situated between the villages of Zlatinitsa and Malomirovo in the Yambol region. Photo by Ann Wuyts, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 April 2014 11:27

Harry Belafonte, MLK estate reach settlement on documents

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Written by JESSE J. HOLLAND, Associated Press   
Monday, 14 April 2014 09:38
Harry Belafonte. Image by David Shankbone. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. WASHINGTON (AP) – Singer and activist Harry Belafonte will get to keep three of Martin Luther King's documents that the King estate had blocked him from selling.

Lawyers announced a confidential settlement Friday between Belafonte and the estate letting Belafonte retain possession of the documents. No other terms were announced, and the lawyers refused to comment further.

“The parties express their appreciation to one another for the good faith efforts that led to this resolution,” the lawyers said in a joint statement.

Belafonte sued the civil rights leader's estate in October in federal court in Manhattan after being blocked from auctioning the documents. The papers are an outline of a Vietnam War speech by King, notes to a speech King never got to deliver in Memphis, Tenn., and a condolence letter from President Lyndon B. Johnson to King's wife after his 1968 assassination.

Belafonte's lawsuit said King and his widow, Coretta Scott King, gave Belafonte a number of items. Court papers said Belafonte had held the Vietnam War speech outline since 1967, when King left it behind after working on it in Belafonte's apartment. It said the Memphis speech notes were found in King's suit pocket after he was assassinated. According to the lawsuit, Coretta Scott King offered the notes to Belafonte but he suggested they instead be given to one of King's longest-serving confidants. When that man died in 1979, his widow delivered the notes to Belafonte, it said.

The letter from Johnson was given to Belafonte by Coretta Scott King about a decade ago after she admired the collection of historic documents on a wall of his home, the lawsuit said.

It's not yet known what Belafonte plans to do with the documents. Sotheby's Inc. has held them since 2008 pending resolution of the dispute.

“Sotheby's is very pleased to hear that the parties have reached an agreement and we anticipate returning the documents to Mr. Belafonte,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

King's family and estate have sent numerous cease-and-desist letters to stop various uses of King's written work and image, and followed up with court action if they weren't satisfied with the results. Last year, they sued Andrew Young, a King confidante who helped their father coordinate civil rights efforts throughout the South, over footage of King that shows up in a series produced by Young's foundation. That lawsuit is still pending.

In 1987, Coretta Scott King sued Boston University and lost over papers her husband had given to the school where he earned his doctorate. In 2011, the estate filed a federal lawsuit in Jackson, Miss., against the son of Maude Ballou, who was King's secretary in the late 1950s, over documents including letters from King. They lost, and those documents were put up for auction by Ballou.

The three surviving King children – eldest sibling Yolanda died in 2007 – have also sued each other. In 2008, Bernice King and Martin Luther King III sued Dexter King, accusing him of acting improperly as head of their father's estate. The three reached a settlement in October 2009.

The three King children are currently fighting in court over possession of King's Nobel Peace Prize medal and one of his Bibles. The slain civil rights icon's estate, controlled by his sons, is locked in a legal dispute with Bernice King over ownership of the items. The Martin Luther King Jr. Estate Inc., which is run by Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King, wants to sell the items, while Bernice is opposed to the sale.

The Bible and peace prize medal are being held in a safe deposit box controlled by the court pending the outcome of the dispute.


Follow Jesse J. Holland on Twitter at

Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-WF-04-11-14 2114GMT

Harry Belafonte. Image by David Shankbone. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Last Updated on Monday, 14 April 2014 09:57

German recluse agrees to deal on handling of art hoard

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Written by GEIR MOULSON, Associated Press   
Wednesday, 09 April 2014 10:19
BERLIN (AP) – A reclusive collector who hoarded hundreds of valuable artworks at his Munich home has agreed to cooperate with German authorities' efforts to determine which pieces were seized by the Nazis.

As part of the deal announced Monday, Cornelius Gurlitt will get back those works that are indisputably his.

Authorities found some 1,400 items at Gurlitt's home while investigating a tax case in 2012, though it only became public last November. Officials say at least 458 works may have been seized from their owners by the Nazis, and Gurlitt's representatives are in talks with several claimants seeking restitution. The works include Henri Matisse's Femme assise, for which two claims have been made.

Officials have said for months they would like to reach an agreement with Gurlitt, who in February filed an appeal against the artworks' seizure.

The Bavarian Justice Ministry, the federal culture minister's office and Gurlitt's representatives said in a joint statement that works whose Nazi-era history officials are checking will remain in authorities' custody, and the task force set up by authorities to examine them will endeavor to conclude its research within a year. Gurlitt will get at least one representative on the task force.

Works on which background research hasn't been completed in a year will be returned to Gurlitt, but the collector will continue to grant access for further work, the statement added. Pieces on which restitution claims are pending will be held in trust after the year is up.

All works whose history isn't being examined “will be returned to him promptly,” said Gurlitt's lawyer, Christoph Edel.

Gurlitt spokesman Stephan Holzinger said he is expected to get at least 300 to 350 works back. He inherited the collection – which includes works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Pierre-Auguste Renoir – from his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who traded in works confiscated by the Nazis.


Frank Jordans contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-WF-04-07-14 1502GMT


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