Ocean’s Fourteen? Con Artists Get Conned In Art Swindle

Every now and then, a great crime story emerges from the art world, one worthy of Danny Ocean and his crew of con artists.

Back in 2003, two art-collecting brothers put down a 20k euro deposit on what they believed was a portrait of the Spanish artist Antonio Maria Esquivel, by the very great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya. Goya, if you are not already aware, is generally considered to be the dividing line between the Old Master painters and the beginning of what we would consider Modern art. Thus his importance, and therefore the value of his work both from an historical and indeed a financial perspective, cannot be overestimated. A single, authentic Goya drawing can sell for millions of dollars.

The brothers were supposed to pay the seller 250k euro in order to complete the transaction, but began to doubt whether the painting was the real thing, despite the certificate they had received from the seller that the work was genuine. According to press reports, in 2006, a leading Goya expert determined that the painting was not the real deal, but rather a copy or fake, albeit one painted in Goya’s time. A court ruled that the brothers could keep the painting, but they did not have to pay the remaining 250k owed to the seller, due to the seller’s knowing misrepresentation. Again, according to the press, what originally tipped off the expert hired by the court was the fact that the portrait was lacking two medals which Esquivel had been awarded, and which appeared in what the press described as the “original painting” (more on that later.)

The fun part of the story begins when the brothers decided that they were going to use the painting to try to rip someone else off. They found a broker who told them that he knew an Arab sheikh who would be interested in acquiring the work. After a successful meeting with the Saudi collector, the brothers provided the same false certificate of authenticity that had been used to trick them. The collector agreed to pay a price of 4 million euros for the painting, while the brothers agreed to give the broker 300k euros as a finder’s fee; they borrowed this money from a friend, who paid a representative of the broker on their behalf, promising that they would repay him the next day with an 80k euro bonus for allowing them to borrow the money.

The pair then traveled to Turin, where they met a representative of their Saudi buyer, who brought them a bag filled with 1.7 million in Swiss francs. Wisely, the brothers had purchased a machine used by currency experts to verify that these were real notes and not counterfeit. Unwisely, at some point before they left Turin for Geneva, the bag containing the real notes was switched, and replaced with one containing counterfeit notes.

When the brothers arrived in Switzerland to deposit their ill-gotten gains at their Swiss bank, they were informed that the notes were nothing more than photocopies of Swiss francs. Realizing they had been tricked, they then tried to make it back to Spain via train. Rather stupidly, they decided to bring the fake bank notes with them. Unfortunately, they had the further bad luck of being stopped by French customs police in Avignon, and charged with trying to smuggle 1.7 million counterfeit Swiss francs into the country. Oh and if you hadn’t already guessed, the broker and the sheikh have disappeared, along with the 300k euros.

If you have ever seen the British television show “Hustle”, the story reads like an episode of that program. It was a brilliantly planned and executed con, and one that targeted two people who were trying to con someone else. However, here’s the problem I have with the story.

Antonio Maria Esquivel (1806-1857) was a portrait painter who was born in Seville. He moved to Madrid in 1831, in order to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts there. In 1840 he was awarded the Order of Isabel the Catholic, arguably the most prestigious prize that Spain can bestow, and became an official painter to the royal Court in 1843.

If you know something about art history, then you have already seen what the problem is with this timeline: Goya died in France in 1828. In fact, the painter had been living there in exile since he left Spain for the last time in 1824. In other words, by the time Esquivel moved to Madrid, Goya was long dead; by the time Esquivel was awarded the Order of Isabel the Catholic, Goya had been gone for almost two decades.

Moreover, the painting is clearly a poor copy, not of a Goya, but rather of Esquivel’s own “Self Portrait”, which hangs in the Lázaro Galdiano Foundation in Madrid. While I cannot say that I am familiar with all of Goya’s work, it would seem to me that there is a logical impossibility that Goya painted the picture, based both on the timeline of artist and subject, as well as the fact that this is arguably Esquivel’s most famous painting, or at least one of them. Thus, it seems odd to me that none of the news articles that I have read on the case, whether in English or in Spanish, have pointed out that no one in their right mind would have thought this a Goya, to begin with.

Still, whatever the reason why this fact as overlooked, the story itself is certainly a highly entertaining one.

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The fake painting and fake Swiss francs

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