Art fraud ring busted

By Jodi Mohrmann, Managing editor of special projects, jmohrmann@wjxt.com
Published On: May 16 2014 02:25:14 PM EDT
Updated On: May 17 2014 07:00:00 AM EDT

Hundreds of victims thought they were buying one-of-a-kind, unique items on the Internet. What they didn't know was that they were caught up in an international art scam.   Postal inspectors went undercover to catch the people behind it.  They say they caught Michael Zabrin on camera selling forged art prints to undercover inspectors.

"We would attend some of the art shows and we would engage the dealers selling the counterfeit art. So having that one on one conversation with somebody who is committing a crime is great evidence for us," said US Postal Inspector Tom Brady.

The sting operation was one phase of an international art fraud ring that cost a thousand victims more than $10 million.

"They bought it from a variety of places, some were from Internet auction sites, some were from galleries, some from art shows, and some were even purchased on cruise ships, so there is a wide range of where the art was purchased," said Brady.

Counterfeit work by world-renowned artists such as Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso were allegedly for sale.

"They were marketing them as original, signed, limited editions prints. So, for someone who is an art collector that is a dream for them to buy a signed limited edition print by that artist," Brady explained.

Some victims paid up to $50,000 for one painting.

"When they went to try to re-sell them they were finding that these were counterfeit and they were not what they thought we were," said Brady.

After multiple consumer complaints, gallery and art experts helped postal inspectors track down the bogus art.

"This turned out to be one of the largest art fraud investigations we've ever conducted, we seized over 25-thousand counterfeit prints in the course of the investigation," Brady explained.

Postal inspectors say it is important to do your research. consumers should ask for a "certificate of authenticity" they could also ask the seller for a history of where the seller obtained the print.

"Contact people, ask questions. Don't feel pressured to make a purchase because it's here today," said Brady.

Zabrin, a twice convicted felon, was a member of this counterfeit art ring. He was sentenced to 9 years in prison for his role in this case. Postal inspectors say 22 other people have been arrested or convicted with links to this case.

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