Art dealer charged with fraud related to Picassos

April 3, 2012 - 5:26 PM

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — An art dealer was arrested Tuesday on federal charges that he defrauded his customers by falsely claiming the artworks he sold them were original pieces by Pablo Picasso.

David Crespo of Guilford was charged with mail and wire fraud. Authorities say the 57-year-old Crespo also created documents that falsely supported the provenance of the art, which he then provided to customers.

Crespo appeared in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport and was released on $50,000 bond. His attorney and wife declined to comment.

Crespo owned Brandon Gallery, which was raided in November 2010 by FBI agents who seized several pieces of art.

In 2005, Crespo bought what were purported to be original pieces of artwork by Picasso, according to an arrest affidavit. He paid less than $50,000 for about 21 pieces, authorities said.

The affidavit cites emails in which Crespo said he was later told by Sotheby's that the Picassos were not original pieces of art, but reproductions printed on paper.

In 2008, Crespo sold two of the pieces, "Opium Smoker" and "La Tauromaqura," for $33,750 to buyers in Massachusetts, authorities said. In 2009, he sold another piece, "Spirit of the Bullfight," for $10,750.

In connection with the sales, Crespo provided the buyers with certificates stating the artwork was original and had been hand-signed by Picasso, according to authorities. But an art expert who is a consultant to the Picasso family determined they were not genuine Picasso artwork and are of nominal or frame value, authorities said.

Another buyer bought "The Studio at La Califonie" from Crespo in 2009 for $35,000 and traded Crespo another piece of art valued at $48,000, investigators said.

And another buyer paid Crespo $78,000 in 2005 to own a one-third interest in the collection, but Crespo never disclosed that the collection did not contain genuine Picasso art, according to the affidavit.

An FBI agent said Crespo told him he never told the investor the pieces were not genuine.

"Crespo also advised me that he 'knew it was fake, I am sorry. I knew it was wrong,'" the affidavit states.

The next court hearing for Crespo was scheduled for July 13. He faces up to 20 years in prison on each charge.

Crespo was allowed to continue working at his wife's store, which sells artwork and collectibles. Noting those items, prosecutor Anthony Kaplan said "he needs to be particularly careful in that regard."

Crespo has been accused previously of dishonest dealings in the art world in a civil case.

Philip Coffaro, a Long Island art gallery owner who once did business with Crespo, said he was interviewed by FBI agents who showed him fraudulent certificates that Crespo had apparently used to overstate the value of signed Marc Chagall prints. Crespo would buy items from him for around $200 and mark them up as much as $10,000 for sale as far afield as Korea, Coffaro said.

"The certificates were disgusting," Coffaro said.

Coffaro had a falling-out with Crespo in 2008 when he accused his former associate of selling off a piece of art that did not belong to him.

A lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York alleged that Coffaro loaned Crespo a Salvador Dali painting, "Folle Folle Folle Minerva." Coffaro said Crespo later refused his demands to return it, giving it instead to another man to pay off a debt.

Coffaro spent $40,000 to reclaim the painting and sold it for about $220,000, but Crespo continued to claim ownership of the painting, according to a complaint.

A judge ruled in 2010 that Coffaro is the rightful owner. That ruling is under appeal.

"David is his own worst enemy," said Coffaro, who owns Gallery 25 in Mineola, N.Y. "He took advantage of the system. He took advantage of people. He's very smooth."

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Associated Press writer Michael Melia contributed to this story.