CHICAGO -- International art dealer Michael Zabrin pushed the thick black glasses up his nose and fidgeted, the shackles on his ankles clanking in the quiet courtroom.
At a hearing last week, he stood to take his punishment from a federal judge, again.
A chronic, twice-convicted confidence man -- his lawyer says he lacks impulse control -- Zabrin spent decades maneuvering through the exclusive world of high-end art, peddling works by celebrated artists like Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.
Most were just well-done forgeries.
Zabrin, of north suburban Northbrook, Ill., was a member of a ring that earned millions of dollars selling phony art online and through tony galleries in Paris, Tokyo and Barcelona -- and Chicago's Michigan Avenue -- over more than two decades.
"He's an affable fraudster," said James Tendick, a retired postal inspector who helped convict Zabrin in the early 1990s. "He can be smiling, shaking your hand and joking with you and at the same time he's taking a big check for a print that he knows is fake."
Last Wednesday Zabrin, 58, was sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in the art-fraud ring. It's the second time he's been sent to prison for unloading phony prints on unsuspecting art lovers.
"He is a very cunning individual," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy DePodesta told U.S. District Judge Robert Dow. "He is able to charm, lie and manipulate people for personal gain."
Two of Zabrin's confederates, James Kennedy and Leon Amiel Jr., have pleaded guilty and are scheduled to be sentenced over the next two months.
The ring dealt primarily in "limited edition" prints, in which a plate is used to make a limited number of copies of an artist's work under the artist's supervision. The artist signs each print and the plate is destroyed.
Kennedy, also of Northbrook, has admitted to faking the signatures on some pieces sold as limited edition prints. He claimed he had obtained a print of Picasso's of his longtime muse, Francoise Gilot, from the artist's daughter and earned $10,000 when he sold it. In another instance, Amiel, 39, of New York sold a phony Roy Lichtenstein piece for about $1,000, prosecutors said.
Zabrin, like the Amiel family, has been part of phony-art world for decades.
In 1992, he pleaded guilty to selling more than $800,000 in fine art prints he knew to be counterfeit, much of it as the Midwest distributor for prints supplied by the Amiel family. His prison sentence was reduced to one year after he cooperated in the federal fraudulent art case against Donald Austin, who owned galleries Chicago and San Francisco.
After Zabrin was released from prison, he was put on supervised release, which ended in 1998. Prosecutors said he was back to committing art fraud a year later.
In May 2006, after his home was raided Zabrin again began cooperating with the government. But later that year, he bought eight pieces of art but told his partner he'd only purchased six, with the intent of selling the other two pieces and keeping the cash himself. In 2007 Zabrin pleaded guilty to fraud in that case, said his attorney, Jeffrey Steinback.
Along with several shoplifting charges, including a 2006 case in which he was caught stealing an expensive handbag from a high-end department store while on his way to meet investigators, Zabrin was left out of favor with the government, Steinback said.
"It is Mr. Zabrin who rendered himself unusable as a witness," DePodesta told the judge at the sentencing.
Steinback, told the judge his client has a history of depression, anxiety and addiction. One of his addictions, especially during times of stress, is shoplifting.
The judge cut him little slack.
"He's been engaged in unlawful conduct for a quarter-century," Dow said before imposing his sentence.
In January 2010, Zabrin admitted to scamming at least 250 people out of more than $1 million though the sale of counterfeit prints from about 1999 to 2007.
Zabrin admitted he paid up to $1,500 for fake prints produced in Spain and Italy, and then sold them on eBay as originals for a healthy profit. He and an Italian distributor employed an unsophisticated code when Zabrin put in orders over the phone.
"I need some Ps," Zabrin said when asking for works by Picasso.
Zabrin also admitted to watching Kennedy forge the signatures of Miro and Picasso on prints.
Leon Amiel Jr. is the grandson of Leon Amiel Sr., a notorious New York book publisher who created what prosecutors called "the largest source of counterfeit prints in the world" before his death in 1988.
Several members of the Amiel family were sent to prison for their roles in the phony art ring in the 1990s. Back then, Amiel Jr. was just a young delivery boy in the family business and not part of the criminal enterprise, according to retired postal inspector Jack Ellis, who investigated the case. (Amiel's lawyer, Jerry Bischoff, disputes this, saying his client had nothing to do with the family business at that time.)
But in October 2010, Amiel Jr. pleaded guilty to mail fraud, admitting he sold Kennedy a fake unsigned Chagall print titled "Eiffel Tower," knowing that Kennedy intended to forge the artist's signature on the print.
Kennedy, sold the print on eBay to an undercover agent posing as an art buyer.
Amiel also admitted to making fake prints that he sold, along with phonies left behind by his grandfather, to dealers including Zabrin and Kennedy. Prosecutors claim Amiel caused victims to lose more than $1 million by peddling fake art.
Following "Operation Bogart," the federal investigation that led to Zabrin's 1992 conviction, officials tossed approximately 100,000 pieces of fraudulent art into a Peekskill, N.Y. incinerator. But they knew more forgeries existed, Ellis said.
"There's no question there were other stashes," Ellis said.
The world of fake art is indeed far-reaching. In April, Alan Kass, a Chicago art dealer who allegedly did business with Zabrin, was charged with selling forged artwork to hundreds of customers, earning more than $480,000, according to federal prosecutors. Two other men are also charged in that alleged scheme.
"Frankly, fakes ruin the market on many levels," said Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR). "They create doubt ... (and) distort our knowledge of the artist."
After Amiel Jr. and Kennedy are sentenced, federal officials will burn more than 20,000 prints seized during the case.
"That will take them out of the market forever," said John Donnelly, a postal inspector in Chicago.
BEFORE HEADING TO THE GALLERY, READ THESE TIPS:
--Research the artist and the type of art you intend to purchase. Consult an expert or an artist's foundation that can recommend trusted sellers and review your print to ensure authenticity.
--Consult a good, scholarly compilation of an artist's work, which will tell you the technique of manufacture, size of image, size of the printed sheet and the edition size.
--Ask the seller for the provenance, or history, of the print. Ask where the seller bought the print and how long the seller has owned it.
--Work with a well-known art dealer. If the print comes with a Certificate of Authenticity (COA), check to see if the COA entitles the owner to return the print.
--Ask for an evaluation of the work from an expert, such as the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), which offers authentication research services. If the piece has already been purchased, get it authenticated.
--Consult an art lawyer before making a purchase.
Sources: International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), Better Business Bureau, FBI Chicago Special Agent Brian Brusokas
(c) 2011, Chicago Tribune.
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