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Art dealer accused of forgery scheme

Ely Sakhai is charged with mixing copies into his selection of paintings.

March 11, 2004|Louise Roug and Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — A Manhattan art dealer was arrested Tuesday for allegedly selling forged Impressionist and Postimpressionist masterworks for millions of dollars.

According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Ely Sakhai, 52, purchased authentic paintings by such artists as Marc Chagall, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Paul Gaugin. He then would obtain forgeries of the paintings he had purchased and would sell those, in some cases, prior to selling the authentic work, according to the complaint.

But the scheme sometimes had unintended consequences.

In May 2000, for example, both the authentic and the forged version of a Gauguin painting, "Vase de Fleurs," were simultaneously offered for sale by Sakhai and a collector who ended up with the fake. When the identical paintings appeared in spring catalogs from both Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses, Christie's arranged for an expert examination.

The painting being offered through Christie's was deemed a forgery, and the auction house withdrew it. Sotheby's auctioned its Gauguin, and Sakhai received $310,000 from the sale.

In another instance, two art dealers from Paris and New York together bought a $650,000 Claude Monet from Sakhai. When the painting Sakhai sold was found to be a fake, he allegedly offered as a substitute nine works of art, purportedly by Monet, Renoir, Chagall, Paul Cezanne and other painters. But those too turned out to be forgeries, according to the complaint.

In addition to those cases, Sakhai is charged with selling other forged paintings to art dealers and collectors in Tokyo and Taipei. In those cases, the complaint says, he later put the authentic paintings up for auction at Sotheby's and Christie's in New York and London.

The Long Island resident, who owns three New York galleries, was arrested on charges of mail and wire fraud in connection with the forgery scheme.

He did not return calls to The Times by press time.

Sakhai was released on a $1-million bond. If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for each of the eight counts and a $2-million fine or twice the gross gain or loss resulting from the crime.

Louise Roug reported from Los Angeles, Paul Lieberman from New York.

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