How a Painter Convinced the World His Forgeries Were Real Masterpieces

For decades, a 75-year-old Queens man was able to con the art world into purchasing millions of dollars worth of worthless forgeries that he made in his garage using some old paint and a blow dryer.

According to the indictment, Pei Shen Qian was an artist selling his own paintings on a New York City street corner in the late 1980's when he was discovered by co-defendant Jose Diaz.

Diaz paid Qian $200 for the first fake and eventually sold enough forgeries to pull in about $80 million between 1995 and 2011. During that time, Diaz's brother, Jesus, and his girlfriend, Glafira Rosales, also became involved in the scheme.

Diaz apparently did much of the legwork, purchasing old paintings at art auctions and flea markets for Qian to use as canvases, staining newer canvases with tea bags to make them look older, locating old paint, and buying old furniture with masonite, a hard board used by the abstract expressionist painters that Qian was copying.

Once Qian completed a painting, Diaz, Jesus, and Rosales would "age" the work by blow-drying it, exposing it cold temperatures, and sometimes leaving it outside to brave the elements.

The Diaz brothers also allegedly created elaborate false provenances for the fake works by researching the lives of "various deceased, historical figures in the international art market community, such as art collectors and art brokers, to craft a plausible but entirely false, chain of ownership for the fake works."

The fakes were convincing enough that Diaz and Rosales were able to sell them to galleries across the city.

Ann Freedman of the Knoedler Gallery sold most of the forged works, but was not charged in the conspiracy. Freedman told New York Magazine that galleries, museums, and experts were all fooled.

"They were very credible in so many respects," says Freedman. "I had the best conservation studio examine them. One of the Rothkos had a Sgroi stretcher. He made the stretchers for Rothko. They clearly had the right materials. I got a consensus. Some of the paintings were featured on museum walls," she continued. "The Rothko went to the Beyeler [Foundation], and the Newman went to Guggenheim Bilbao for the tenth anniversary exhibition. The most knowledgeable in the art establishment gave me no reason to doubt the paintings."

Experts seem to have been convinced, by and large, that the individualistic quality of the Abstract Expressionist paintings Rosales obtained could only have been achieved by the artists themselves. "The fact is that the entire Eastern establishment believed in them. I saw the paintings," said Stephen Polcari, a scholar of Abstract Expressionism and author of Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience. "And they were very good. You wouldn't think twice about them for a second. Ann did everything she could possibly do."

When police raided Qian's home, they found a jackpot of forgery tools—paintings he'd made in the style of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, books on abstract expressionist artists and their techniques, auction catalogues containing works by famous American abstract expressionist artists, paint, brushes, canvases, and an envelope of old nails marked "Mark Rothko".

Authorities have been unable to locate Qian since the indictment, and say he may be hiding out in China.

[h/t New York Times]