The FBI arrested a Florida man last week, saying that he was trying to sell counterfeit Picasso, Matisse, and John Singer Sargent paintings. He was also alleged to have forged Sotheby’s documents proving the authenticity of his paintings, and to have mailed those fraudulent documents to an undercover FBI agent. Sixty-eight-year-old Luigi Cugini, allegedly a well known con artist, is said to have told his customers that he was the grandson of Joseph Coletti (now dead), a sculptor from the Boston area. Cugini marketed his paintings as having been part of Coletti’s personal collection, saying that they were worth millions of dollars. Cugini sometimes kept the paintings in his Broward County, Florida apartment, but often kept them in a Massachusetts self storage unit.
The FBI investigated Cugini for six months. An undercover FBI agent posed as a jewelry broker in order to trick Cugini. Cugini had hoped to sell three paintings, that he claimed were authentic work by Sargent, to the “jewelry broker” for $565,000. He told the undercover agent that the works were Sargent’s “A Gust of Wind,” “Under the Willows,” and “Head of a Young Woman.”
The “broker,” actually the undercover FBI agent, was supposed to be buying the paintings on behalf of his wealthy clients. To seal the deal, Cugini mailed the “broker” documents that purported to prove that the paintings were real, but the FBI says that the paintings are fake and that Cugini forged the documents in order to make them seem authentic. Cugini had claimed that the forged documents were letters of consignment from Sotheby’s auction house. But when the FBI investigated the documents, the so-called consignment letters turned out to be no more genuine than the paintings to which they referred.
In addition to the undercover sting operation that led to Cugini’s arrest, the FBI had been investigating Cugini for selling a counterfeit Picasso watercolor in March, and for offering to sell $28 million in paintings by Matisse to a dealer who later became a confidential informant for the government. The FBI had an expert evaluate the Matisse paintings, which the expert believed were fake. The FBI also interviewed Joseph Coletti’s two children. Coletti’s children denied being related to Cugini and told investigators that their father did not own any collection of paintings.
Cugini was arrested last Friday morning at his home, and appeared in the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach on Monday. He will be charged with a single count of mail fraud stemming from the documents that he used to verify the Sargent paintings’ authenticity. For that single count of mail fraud, Cugini could go to jail for as long as 20 years.
When Cugini was negotiating an art sale, he typically took potential customers to see the art displayed in his home, in Pompano Beach, Florida. But he did not keep all of his paintings there. Some paintings he placed in a secure Massachusetts self storage unit. Climate-controlled storage provides ideal archival conditions for artwork, and it is not illegal either to reproduce a famous piece of art, or to store the reproduction. Cugini’s crime, if he committed one, occurred when he tried to defraud potential art buyers out of thousands of dollars, and when he allegedly forged Sotheby’s documents and sent them through the mail.
Cugini previously had a judgment entered against him in 2005 for selling a counterfeit Picasso drawing (“Personage Endormi et Femme Accroupie,” or “Sleeping Person and Kneeling Woman”) to a New York City art dealer. The drawing was found to be counterfeit when Picasso’s daughter examined it and told the art dealer, Chantal Park, that it was a phony. In that case, Cugini did not respond and did not appear in court. In his absence, a judge entered a $175,000 judgment against Cugini and a co-defendant.
In addition, Cugini was arrested in California in 2004 for selling art alleged to be counterfeit. He and his codefendant in that case, Dr. Vilas Likhite, were also codefendants in a counterfeit art case in New York in 1985. In the 1985 case, Cugini and Likhite faced charges of art forgery and fraud for selling counterfeit art purporting to be the work of Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollack, and Willem de Kooning. But that time, the charges were dropped.
Court documents do not explain how the FBI thinks that Cugini obtained the forged paintings. They did, however, note that it is not difficult to get good, museum quality reproductions of paintings online. A Sargent reproduction can be purchased online for about $189.