Connecticut Has Seen a Rash of Fraud and Theft Involving Fine Art

Connecticut seems to be riding a wave of art crime.

A Madison gallery owner pleaded guilty earlier this month to selling fake Chagalls and Picassos. In August, an assistant to Jasper Johns was charged with stealing the Sharon, Conn.-based pop artist's works and selling them for $6.5 million.

Plainville art restoration and conservation expert Tim Hall says one of his wealthy clients came in just a few weeks ago with a painting he'd bought for $12,000. It turned out to be a copy worth about $300. After some negotiations with the Connecticut seller (details of which Hall doesn't want to discuss) his client "recovered his money" and no charges were filed.

And in March, FBI agents announced they know who stole an estimated $500 million worth of paintings from Boston's Gardner Museum 23 years ago and that those purloined masterpieces spent some time in Connecticut.

Alleged Connecticut mobster Robert Gentile wasn't directly named as one of the thieves, but a federal prosecutor said in court that Gentile had failed a polygraph (lie detector) test about involvement in the Gardner job. The feds also searched his Manchester home a while back and word was they were looking for those paintings. (They didn't find them.)

Gentile, who is in jail accused of other crimes, denies any knowledge of the theft , even though the 20-year statute of limitations has now run out and the FBI is offering a $5 million reward for recovery of the artworks.

For all the recent headlines and behind-the-scenes action concerning thefts and fakes and forgeries, Hall isn't convinced that art crime is actually any worse today than it was years ago.

"I've never encountered a stolen piece… that I know of," says Hall, who's been in the restoration game for 26 years. Hall sees "probably two or three a year, fakes or someone trying to pass a copy off as an original," but adds that average seems to have held fairly steady for a long while.

Geoff Kelly is a long-time member of the FBI's Art Theft Team, and he also doubts there's any sudden increase in art crime. "We haven't seen any upswing," says Kelly, who's based in Boston and has been working on the Gardner museum case for a decade.

He thinks stolen art cases may seem to be more common now because more stolen art is being discovered through online data bases like the London-based "Art Loss Register" and the FBI's National Stolen Art website.

Kelly says that "30 or 40 years ago people were unwittingly dealing in stolen art," but that is far less common today.

So all these high-profile cases popping up now may only be coincidence. Connecticut, after all, has had some sensational art-related crimes in the past, and is likely to see more in the future, and with good reason.

We've got a hell of a lot of very wealthy folks living here and plenty of quality museums, which means there's a humungous pile of very valuable stuff lying around Connecticut to tempt thieves and con artists.

Lots of those One Percenters love to spend their loot on expensive paintings, lithographs, sculptures, pottery, jewelry and other types of art and artifacts.

"Some have a lot of money but not a lot of knowledge," says Hall, which means they can be easy marks for people like David Crespo.

He's the former Madison gallery owner who pleaded guilty on Sept. 3 to a federal mail fraud charge. The feds say Crespo was selling fakes and claiming they were real Picassos and lithographs by Marc Chagall.

Crespo made the mistake of selling one of those "original lithographs" by Chagall to a federal undercover operative for $2,000. He had a whole back-story for the alleged limited-edition lithograph, including a "Certificate of Authenticity" that valued the work (a piece entitled "The Presentation of Chloe") at $12,750 for "insurance purposes," and claimed it had come from the estate of his longtime friend, Richard Riskin.

There was no Riskin. Prosecutors said the piece in question was a "photo-chemical production" from a book. When they searched Crespo's Brandon Gallery, federal agents found whole packages of "Chagall" prints and papers with practice Chagall signatures on them.

Crespo could face up to 20 years in prison when he's sentenced this November.

There are all kinds of con artists like Crespo looking to sell fakes and copies to people with more money than expertise. His scam was comparatively crude compared to some of the great art forgers of the past, but that appears to be true for a lot of art crime these days.