The art lover couldn’t believe what hung on the walls of a gallery in Palm Beach, Florida – pieces by big-name artists, listed at unbelievably low prices.
The gallery owner offered this client a deal – four original pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring and Henri Matisse, works the client later described as the “holy grail”, all for $290,000 paid by credit card in April 2021.
According to federal prosecutors, the deal was too good to be true.
Daniel Bouaziz, the owner of the gallery, appeared in federal court in the Southern District of Florida on Friday to face charges of fraud and money laundering. Prosecutors argue that the pieces he presented as authentic works were cheap reproductions that Mr. Bouaziz purchased at online auctions.
Mr Bouaziz was charged after an investigation that included search warrants at his two galleries, a review of financial records and undercover purchases of what was determined to be fraudulent art, as well as evidence gathered from of six victims who had purchased art later deemed to be fraudulent.
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In the case of the client who purchased what he considered his ‘holy grail’, the works were presented to a gallery in New York, whose director said something was ‘wrong’, according to the complaint federal. The sizes of some parts did not match the originals and some edition numbers were incorrect. Worse still, the customer found a print of Lichtenstein on eBay that exactly matched the Lichtenstein he had purchased, except the one on eBay was only $535.50.
“Let’s face it, the art business is a subjective matter,” said Howard Schumacher, the lawyer representing Mr. Bouaziz. “Everything is done to try to ensure that what is sold is what it is represented”, but he said “there is always the possibility” of counterfeits, “because no one spends days trying to work on the age of paint and the age of paper.
April’s client was not the only one paying for works presented as originals, according to the complaint. Mr. Bouaziz sold a copy, identical to the one he bought for $100, as the original Warhol to an unsuspecting buyer for $85,000, according to the complaint. He also said a Banksy that Mr Bouaziz bought for $518.40 – and which prosecutors said appeared to be fraudulent – was resold for $140,000. Mr. Bouaziz himself appraised the work, says the complaint.
“There are lithographs, and there are reproductions, and often the lithographs and the reproductions are authorized by whoever manages that particular artist’s portfolio,” Schumacher said. “There are a number of different things that have value in different genres within the same work.”
Mr Schumacher said Mr Bouaziz offered those customers full refunds. Prosecutors say Mr Bouaziz laundered his victims’ money, using his profits to buy a Cartier watch, a Lamborghini and a collection of limited-edition firearms.
According to the federal complaint, Mr. Bouaziz conducted his art business through three companies: Galerie Danieli, Danieli Fine Art and VIP Rentals LLC. The Danieli Fine Art website advertises a collection of a wide range of notable artists, from Monet and Rodin to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Willem de Kooning.
“There were a fair number of exhibits that were taken from his galleries and, based on conversations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I don’t believe the government made an expert assessment on any of those exhibits at this stage,” Mr. Schumacher said, also noting that prints, even if not original, can be of considerable value.
In September 2021, an undercover FBI agent began buying art from Mr. Bouaziz, including a Lichtenstein serigraph titled “The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum” which Mr. Bouaziz sold to the agent for $25. $000. Mr. Bouaziz described the room as “top notch”, according to the complaint, and told the agent: “I guarantee my business”.
But, in January 2021, Mr. Bouaziz had bought what was called “Original Lithograph Limited Edition” online from a company in Spain for 450 euros, or about $480. According to the complaint, an online image of “Original Lithograph Limited Edition” was identical to the screen print sold to the undercover officer. The FBI Art Crime team examined the artwork and found that it bore a mechanically reproduced signature, not an authentic signature.
Mr. Bouaziz, a French citizen born in Algeria, is in the United States on a B-2 visitor visa, which does not allow him to own and operate a gallery, prosecutors said. He applied in April 2021 for a loan for VIP rentals, under the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program created to help keep businesses going during the Covid-19 crisis, and falsely claimed claimed he was a U.S. citizen, according to the complaint.
Mr Schumacher declined to comment on his client’s immigration status.