The Simplest Art Fraud Ever Unsurprisingly Gets Busted

A former Los Angeles dealer allegedly painted over signatures and signed Monet's

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An allegedly crooked art dealer passed off paintings by no-name artists as the works of Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, reaping $2 million from a Los Angeles collector who is keeping his or her identity a secret, federal prosecutors said. The dealer, Matthew Taylor, was arrested Thursday in Vero Beach, Florida. Prosecutors said in addition to selling more than 100 paintings over about five years to the unnamed collector, he also allegedly stole paintings from L.A.-area galleries, one of which he's accused of selling to another local gallery for $85,000.

In a surprisingly high-volume, low-tech piece of art fraud, Taylor allegedly swindled the collector out of $2 million in total using a head-slappingly simple scam: According to an indictment handed down in a Los Angeles federal court last week, Taylor simply painted over the signatures of lesser-known artists on paintings he bought cheaply, then signed the famous artists' names himself. He worked for the same collector from 2002 to 2007, the indictment says. That person, identified only by the initials F.L., "tasked Taylor with going out to find art because he’s very knowledgeable about art," U.S. Attorney James A. Bowman said via telephone. But instead of buying actual precious artworks, Taylor allegedly bought works by lesser-known artists, then just painted over and changed the signature. He also allegedly affixed museum labels to the backs that said the works had been displayed at the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery, in Washington D.C., and other museums in Europe. But it seems the collector would have been able to know whether he or she was buying a Monet. Aren't those things catalogued?

"That’s true to some extent but not entirely," Bowman said. "I think the Monet that’s alleged is actually a pastel drawing (pictured above left), and not everything is catalogued by every artist. And the methods that were used – that the indictment alleges – were essentially to convince this collector that what he was buying was legitimate. He doesn’t think he’s buying The Lillies from Monet. Instead, it’s a pastel sketch of Normandie."

As for the paintings Taylor allegedly stole, only one has been found. That work, Granville Redmond's Seascape at Twilight (pictured at left) was actually at the center of a Los Angeles Police Department investigation before it became part of the federal case. The Los Angeles Police Department wrote on its blog in 2009 that Taylor had stolen the Redmond painting, a work by Lucian Frank called Park Scene in Paris, (at right) and one other (only the works by Redmond and Frank are mentioned int he federal indictment). According to the blog post, he sold the Redmond painting out of the trunk of a car to William Karges, who turned around and sold it for $236,000. The Frank work is still missing. Karges reported the stolen Redmond to police after learning of the theft, the blog says. The police blog post says Taylor surrendered to authorities in Sept. 2009. He obviously got free after that, but the Los Angeles Police detective heading up the investigation said he couldn't comment on why Taylor was released.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.