Real estate mogul Luke Brugnara can’t stay out of headlines. In 2010 he was sentenced in federal court to 15 months in prison for poaching steelhead trout in a creek on his farm, and an additional 15 months for failing to pay $300,000 in taxes. Now, he’s accused of art-based mail fraud; federal prosecutors have accused him of accepting a delivery of art and then refusing to pay for the pieces or return them. In total, prosecutors allege he owes 10,785,000 million dollars to an unnamed art dealer from New York for 16 paintings by Willem de Kooning, an Edgar Degas sculpture, and three works by George Luks, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, according to the FBI.
The dealer, who was not named in the court affidavit, cited much suspicious activity. She claimed Brugnara refused to pay a deposit on the work, who cited his timely payment for a Renoir painting for $500,000 and a Picasso drawing as evidence of his reliability as a customer. Adding to these suspicions he also told the dealer that he was opening a museum in San Francisco, and when she said she hadn’t heard news of those plans, he told her it would actually be in Las Vegas.
Later, when she arrived at his home on April 7th to ensure the shipment had arrived safely, she learned that Brugnara had the delivery personnel leave nearly 11 million in art crates in his garage. The dealer went into his home and “observed it was almost empty with the exception of two chairs.”
Since that time, the dealer has not been able to collect the still unpaid artwork, though some has been recovered by the authorities. Brugnara claims the works are “unauthenticated and not worth much” according to S.F. Gate who spoke to an attorney representing the dealer.
Brugnara, also known as “Lucky Luke,” has been pursued doggedly by U.S. tax attorneys in Federal Civil Court since 2001; thus far, he has had the good fortune of having the suits either reduced or dismissed. It is possible he will not fare so well this time. He is being held without bail pending a court hearing that will take place today. According to a federal probation officer Brugnara had “no assets whatsoever,” after his release from prison in 2012.