An East Hampton man stands accused this week of selling over 60 forged paintings, which he claimed to be by Jackson Pollock, to private collectors and on eBay, netting him nearly $1.9 million.
A special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in seeking a warrant for the arrest of John D. Re, 54, said he had engaged in the scheme since March 2005 and at least until this past January. According to the complaint by the agent, Meredith Savona of the bureau’s art theft and art fraud division, Mr. Re falsely told collectors he had come across a trove of Pollock paintings in 1999, when he was hired to clean out the basement of an East Hampton woman, Barbara Schulte, three years after the death of her husband, George Schulte, a woodworker and antiques restorer.
Mrs. Schulte, who later moved to Marblehead, Mass., died last year. Members of the family have not returned calls for comment.
East Hampton Village police arrested Mr. Re on Friday morning for driving with a suspended license, and turned him over to the F.B.I. Arraigned on one count of wire fraud later that day in Federal District Court in Manhattan, he was released on $150,000 bond on his own signature, “but will have to get two co-signers in two weeks to secure the bond” and remain free, said Jerika L. Richardson, a spokeswoman for the federal district attorney’s office for the Southern District.
Mr. Re has a history of arrests. In 1995, he was accused of being part of a counterfeit money ring that created stacks of fake $20 bills using a home printing press. He pleaded guilty to one count of criminal possession of a forged instrument in that case and was sentenced to two and a half to seven years in prison.
His brushes with the law since then include violations of probation, leaving the scene of an accident, and weapons charges.
According to the F.B.I., Mr. Re repeatedly used Mrs. Schulte’s name to create a chain of ownership, or provenance, for the so-called Pollocks. He told collectors he had discovered a “basement which was full of boxes, antiques, and art which had been collected over many years by George Schulte.”
The complaint notes that the International Foundation for Art Research told one wary collector that “several members of Mr. Schulte’s immediate family, as well as his close friends, informed I.F.A.R. that Mr. Schulte never claimed to own artworks by Pollock.”
The complaint does not say who actually painted the alleged forgeries, but notes that Mr. Re is himself a painter, whose work was “Abstract Expressionist in style.”
The first sale, in March 2005, was to someone identified only as Collector 2. Mr. Re continued selling to this individual through 2012, with a total of 58 paintings changing hands, for $519,890.
In 2006, he sold a group of paintings to “Collector 1,” who purchased 12 works for $894,500. Again, he used the Schulte basement as provenance. The next year, Collector 1 sent one of the paintings to an expert to be authenticated, and was told that the “materials in the painting were not available during Pollock’s lifetime.” Mr. Re then offered the work to Collector 2. The complaint is not clear as to the outcome of that transaction.
In 2011, Collector 2 told Mr. Re he was going to send some of the paintings he had purchased to the International Foundation for Art Research. Mr. Re tried to dissuade him, telling him there were “horror stories” about the organization. He wrote in an email, “You know that I have had problems with a few world experts in my time. And that I got in trouble many years ago, and that it was fake money, and that could really work against the art.” The question of “how did George Schulte get so many has, at times, held me and the art back from breaking free of the expert bullshit.”
The collector ended up sending 45 paintings to IFAR, which wrote back that “following a thorough investigation, which included in-person examinations of all 45 paintings by specialists and conservators, extensive provenance and art historical research, and physical examination and selective forensic testing of the material,” none were by Pollock.
IFAR added that the works were “remarkably, and disturbingly, analogous to each other in palette, composition, and overall execution, much more similar, in fact, than any of Pollock’s authentic works are to each other.”
Collector 3 became involved in 2012, the complaint says, purchasing three works for a total of $475,000. One of them was shown to an art dealer in Manhattan, who licked his finger and ran it over what appeared to be a smudge of dirt. Some of the paint came off. The dealer told the collector that the painting was not a Pollock.
The fourth collector was from Texas. The complaint cites an email sent by Mr. Re to this person: “This is a very strong Pollock. Slight crackling throughout, and a very little browning on the front. More on the rear. Not bad for a 62 to 64-year-old painting that has been in a basement for maybe 55 of those years.”
An art agent for a fifth collector, both of them based in New York, was offered several paintings in January. The complaint does not say whether that sale went through.
The prices paid for individual paintings by Collector 2, the one who paid Mr. Re over half a million dollars, were so far below market value, said the F.B.I. agent, that the likelihood of their being real was about nil. The most expensive was sold for $60,000. That collector also purchased 24 “Pollocks” for $5,000 or less each, including 10 for about $1,000 each.
In September 2011, Mr. Re told Collector 2 he was considering sending one painting to the Getty Museum with a new provenance. In capital letters, he wrote that “WE ARE GOING TO HAVE TO FACE THE FIRE SOONER OR LATER. I BELIEVE I HAVE FOUND WHAT WOULD BE CONCIDERED THE GREATEST CONTEMPORARY ART FIND IN HISTORY.” Collector 2 panicked, believing Mr. Re would destroy the value of the paintings if he changed the provenance. Mr. Re responded, “I sold that art to you at high yard sale prices.”
In November 2013, Collector 3 agreed to allow the F.B.I. to monitor a phone call with Mr. Re, who was asking for two of the paintings back.
“I grew up in Brooklyn, okay?” Mr. Re reportedly said on the tape. “My mother’s from the Bonanno family, which means Gambino. If you got to call me back one more time, your mother’s going to start wondering why you stopped visiting her.”
Mr. Re sold several purported Pollocks on eBay, using shill bidders to drive up the prices, according to the complaint. The F.B.I. obtained an email in which he asked an unnamed party to place an eBay bid of $26,600 on one painting he was selling, then had a second shill bid incrementally up to $27,200.
Last month, Ms. Savona interviewed Mr. Re several times. He described himself as an art expert and told her he had never sold any of the purported Pollocks from the Schulte basement as “authentic.” She then confronted him with the records of his eBay transactions, in which he told bidders that the paintings were real.
“Re said he would take the weight for anything he did that was wrong, but that he did not think he had done anything wrong,” the agent wrote.
Abstract Expressionism, Ms. Savona noted in seeking a warrant for Mr. Re’s arrest, is a favorite target of forgers.