According to Gawker’s Gabrielle Bluestone, in “How a Painter Convinced the World His Forgeries Were Real Masterpieces,” there’s a threat on the loose. And lo, he’s an old man living in Queens. He could be your neighbor, your grandfather, and he’s conned the entire art world. What a story!
Too bad that headline’s misleading, because that painter is only one part of the story. In a now seven-year-old scandal, over $33 million was made from the sale of fake Abstract Expressionist paintings by two art dealers, Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz and Glafira Rosales, who then peddled these fakes to the Knoedler Gallery, and another dealer, Julian Weissman. Those paintings were made by Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese immigrant living in Queens. Rosales pled guilty to fraud for these works in August 2013.
Up until now, Rosales was the only person implicated by the courts. On March 31, 2014 an indictment was filed that implicates Qian, among others, and it’s a bit drier than than you’d suppose from the Gawker blurb. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York charged a cast of figures with “conspiracy to commit wire fraud”; the accused are Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz, Jesus Angel Bergantinos Diaz, Pei-Shen Qian, King’s Fine Arts, and Glafira Rosales Fine Arts, LLC. Other charges include money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the IRS, with those charges targeted specifically at the Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz, who held overseas bank accounts.
Anyway, it’s a complicated narrative, with plenty of backstory. Pei-Shen Qian could very likely guilty of something—the court indictment mentions he lied to FBI investigators—but the way Gawker frames it places Qian prime and center in the con. Gabrielle Bluestone writes:
For decades, a 75-year-old Queens man was able to con the art world into purchasing millions of dollars worth of worthless forgeries that he made in his garage using some old paint and a blow dryer.
This is pure spin! That mastermind wasn’t directly conning any galleries or collectors. Throughout the 1980s, Qian was a lowly street painter selling portraits for $15 a pop, when Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz asked him to make an imitation of a modernist-style artwork for $200. Over time their relationship developed into one of simple patronage: the dealer would request a work, Qian would make it, then give it to the dealer. Qian, interviewed by Bloomberg News last year, admitted his innocence, saying that the Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz “told him he was making artwork for fans of the masters who couldn’t afford the genuine articles.” Gawker says it now seems Qian “may be hiding out in China”; the New York Times simply admits that he “remains at large” and “[e]fforts to reach Mr. Qian … were unsuccessful on Monday.”
Whatever the case, Qian was not raking in most of the profits gained from the $33 million made off the sale of fake artworks. According to the claim, Qian was never paid more than a few hundred to several thousand dollars per transaction, for paintings that were sold in the million-dollar range. He got conned, too.
All these facts are readily available to Bluestone—The New York Times has been covering this story for at least three years by now—but whatever nuance is to be found in this story’s been left out for the convenience of spin.