NEW YORK — Pei-Shen Qian’s neighbors in Queens knew he scratched out a living as an artist: He often dried his paintings in the sun, propping them up on the weathered white siding of his modest house.
They were less clear on why he kept his windows covered or why, every so often, a man in an expensive car would come to the house carrying paintings to a painter.
“He would bring a painting in and show it to him, for him to work on or fix up something,” Edwin Gardiner, 68, who lives across the street, said before pausing and adding, “I don’t know what he did with it.”
Parts of the mystery became clearer Friday as neighbors learned that Qian, a quiet 73-year-old immigrant from China, is suspected of having fooled the art world by creating dozens of works that were modeled after America’s modernist masters and later sold as their handiwork for more than $80 million.
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Qian, who came to the U.S. more than four decades ago and struggled to sell his own works in this country, earned just a few thousand dollars for each of his imitations. New York was a center of the art world, but Qian told friends he had been disheartened by the difficulties he encountered finding a foothold as an artist.
“He was kind of frustrated because of the language problem, the connection problem,” said Zhang Hongtu, a friend and acclaimed Chinese artist who lives in New York. “He was not that happy.”
Qian’s low profile as a painter evaporated in recent weeks as federal authorities decided he was the artist whose fakes are at the heart of one of the bolder art frauds in recent memory.
A revised federal indictment handed up this week charged Glafira Rosales, one of the dealers accused of having peddled Qian’s works, with money laundering and tax evasion in connection with the sales.
The indictment does not name Qian, who could not be reached for comment Friday, but people with knowledge of the case confirmed he is the man referred to in the charges as the “Painter.” Neighbors say his home was searched this week by FBI agents.
According to the indictment and other court papers, Qian was discovered selling his art on the streets of Lower Manhattan in the early 1990s by Rosales’ boyfriend and business partner, an art dealer named Jose Carlos Bergantiños-Diaz, who recruited him to make paintings in the style of celebrated abstract expressionists. The indictment does not name Bergantiños-Diaz, but his identity is confirmed by other court records.
Over 15 years, court papers say, the painter, working out of his home studio and garage, churned out at least 63 drawings and paintings that carried the signatures of artistic giants such as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell and Richard Diebenkorn and that Bergantiños-Diaz and Rosales boasted were authentic. They were not copies of paintings; they were sold as newly “discovered” works by those artists.
Rosales sold or consigned the art to two elite Manhattan dealers, Knoedler & Co. — New York City’s oldest gallery until it closed in 2011 — and a former Knoedler employee named Julian Weissman, who in turn sold them for millions of dollars to customers who placed their faith in the dealers’ reputations and the supporting words of some experts.
Rosales told the dealers the vast majority of the paintings came from a collector who had inherited the works from his father and adamantly refused to be identified. Over time, this anonymous owner came to be referred to as “Secret Santa” and “Mr. X.”
Knoedler, its former president, Ann Freedman, and Weissman have repeatedly said they always believed the works to be authentic, despite the lack of documentation.
Rosales is the only person who has been charged in connection with what prosecutors have described as a long-running fraud. She has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors have not indicated that either Manhattan dealer was aware that the works, which have been displayed at international exhibitions, a museum and a U.S. embassy, had been created recently across the East River.
Zhang was shocked to hear the accusations of Qian’s involvement in what appeared to be a far-flung art fraud, saying the Qian he knew was always honest and hardworking.
“I can’t believe it,” he said.
According to the timeline laid out in the indictment, Rosales began showing the painter’s fakes to Knoedler and Weissman around 1994.
The scheme began collapsing in 2009, when questions raised about the authenticity of some Motherwells reached the FBI.
Jack Flam, president of the Dedalus Foundation, the nonprofit organization that authenticates Motherwell’s work, was one of the first experts to publicly identify some of the paintings as forgeries. He noted that not only the works themselves but also the backs of the paintings and the way the canvases were treated and the frames constructed aped the styles of the artists. “Whoever did these paintings was very well-informed of the practices of the artists,” he said.
Eight lawsuits have been brought by customers who say they were duped into buying forgeries. Many of the works were subjected to forensic testing that concluded they were forgeries.
Two suits were settled, including one involving a Pollock bought by a London hedge-fund director for $17 million.
Steven Kartagener, a lawyer for Rosales, declined to comment on the case.
As for Qian, his shabby house was empty Friday. He and his wife had left suddenly a few months ago, neighbors said. Although it was not unusual — they typically spent about half the year in China — this time seemed different. In the yard where once Qian meticulously painted and repainted a giant portrait of a geisha, newspapers and cats drifted. Piled wooden canvas stretchers could be glimpsed through a window of the garage; the doors had been left unlocked.
And in nearly every window of the two-story home, plywood or dark paper blocked out the light.