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Influential L.A.-area wine collector accused of fraud

Rudy Kurniawan, whose purchases drove up rare wine prices worldwide, is charged with trying to sell $1.3 million in counterfeit French Burgundy at auction.

March 09, 2012|By Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times
  • Wine collector Rudy Kurniawan is shown in 2005. He was arrested by FBI agents at his Arcadia home Thursday.
Wine collector Rudy Kurniawan is shown in 2005. He was arrested by FBI agents… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

A Los Angeles-area wine collector who became so influential in the rare vintage market that he drove up prices worldwide has been charged by federal authorities with fraudulently obtaining millions of dollars in loans and attempting to sell $1.3 million in counterfeit French Burgundy.

Rudy Kurniawan, 35, was arrested Thursday without incident at his Arcadia home by FBI agents assigned to the Los Angeles office after a years-long investigation by the FBI Art Crime Team.

In an indictment unsealed Thursday, the Indonesian national was charged by the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan with three counts of wire fraud and two counts of mail fraud. If convicted on all counts, he faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison.

A 2006 Times profile of Kurniawan described him as a slight man with an "unconscious self-confidence" and an outsized ability to influence worldwide prices for rare wines.

"Since he started buying, prices for rare wine have skyrocketed," the article said. "As he stepped up his acquisitions in 2004, a dozen other ultra-rich buyers emerged to compete with him for the best bottles. And the market for old wine exploded."

Along the way, "Kurniawan amassed one of the world's premier wine collections, estimated at its peak to be more than 50,000 bottles of the most celebrated Bordeaux and Burgundy wines of the last century."

But on Thursday, U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara said that if the allegations against Kurniawan are proved in court, his "days of wine and wealth are over."

Neither Kurniawan nor his attorney could be reached for comment. Kurniawan remains in custody until his bail can be set at a hearing next week.

Federal authorities allege that in 2008, Kurniawan consigned at auction at least 84 bottles — or about $600,000 worth — of counterfeit wine he claimed were from the Domaine Ponsot winery in France. He claimed one of the bottles was a 1929 vintage, even though the estate did not begin producing the wine until 1934, authorities allege.

According to the federal complaint, he claimed other bottles were produced between 1945 and 1971 from the Clos St. Denis vineyard of Domaine Ponsot, but the winemaker did not produce wine from that vineyard until 1982.

When questioned about the source of the counterfeit vintages, Kurniawan told the Domaine Ponsot administrator he had obtained the bottles from contacts in Asia, but no such contacts could be located, federal authorities said.

Officials allege Kurniawan tried to repeat the fraud in London in February, using a straw seller to auction 78 bottles of Burgundy wine purported to be Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and expected to sell for $736,500.

The wine was withdrawn from auction after suggestions were made that it was counterfeit. One person noted on a well-known wine appreciation bulletin board that the four-digit serial numbers on some bottles should have been five or six digits. The foil around the corks was also alleged not to be genuine, and labels that were supposed to be from 1959 to 1971 included an accent mark that did not appear on the bottles until 1976.

Authorities also allege that as Kurniawan was spending millions on wine, clothing, jewelry and travel, he engaged in "multiple fraudulent schemes to obtain millions of dollars in loans" from a finance company by understating his debts and attempting to use artwork and wine as collateral when he had already used the items as guarantees to an auction house.

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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