Art Fraudster Unlikely|to Get a New Trial

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge Wednesday seemed unlikely to change his mind on whether convicted art fraudster Luke Brugnara deserves a new trial, as Brugnara’s attorney disputed the value of the paintings involved.
     Arguments over the real value of 16 paintings attributed to Willem de Kooning and a bronze casting of an Edgar Degas sculpture filled much of the three-hour hearing before U.S. District Judge William Alsup.
     Brugnara’s new attorney, George Boisseau, moved for a new trial based on expert testimony that the de Koonings have no value.
     Alsup didn’t buy it. “This is not going to be a basis for a new trial,” Alsup told Boisseau. “That’s the American way, that someone would buy something for $1 and sell it for $10.”
     Boisseau and Dena Young were appointed to represent Brugnara, who acted as his own lawyer during his two-week fraud trial in May.
     Boisseau argued: “The no-value on the deKoonings is greatly important for the defendant. I’ve seen the trial transcripts, and it’s always been the government’s position that this is very, very valuable art. Now we find out that it’s not.”
     Brugnara, a former real estate mogul, was indicted in June 2014 after ordering and receiving more than $11 million worth of art, including an Edgar Degas sculpture cast in bronze by the Valsuani foundry for an art museum Brugnara said he was planning to build in San Francisco.
     When art dealer Rose Long demanded payment, Brugnara claimed the art had been a “gift.”
     The Degas is still missing, but the FBI recovered a drawing by Joan Miró, a series of etchings by Pablo Picasso, 16 paintings attributed to Willem de Kooning and a painting by George Luks.
     A jury convicted Brugnara, 51, of two counts of wire fraud, one count of mail fraud, one count of making false declarations to the court, escape and contempt. Brugnara briefly took it on the lam before he was convicted when he was taken from jail to meet with his attorney, before he fired him.
     On Wednesday, Alsup noted that at trial Brugnara could have cross-examined New York art dealer Walter Maibaum on the value of the de Koonings, but he did not. Maibaum owns the Picassos, the Miró painting and the Degas statute and is selling the de Koonings on consignment.
     “It’s possible that Mr. Maibaum could have been blown out of the water, and there could have been an acquittal. That’s possible,” Alsup said. “We can’t just try a new case because a new lawyer comes in and finds a new angle.”
     But he deemed the testimony submitted by the government’s expert witness Christopher Gaillard, that the de Koonings have no commercial value, “a troubling point.”
     The value of the art will affect the length of Brugnara’s sentence. Gaillard’s appraisal report valued the fair market value of the art, minus the missing Degas, at $177,000.
     In testimony Wednesday, Gaillard said the fair market value is the amount a willing buyer and a willing seller, both fully informed of the facts, are willing to pay and receive.
     He noted discrepancies between the signatures on the de Kooning paintings, saying they were stylistically different from what he knew of de Kooning’s work.
     He noticed another issues with the signatures. “They do appear to be different from each other,” Gaillard said, pointing out that on one painting, the signature appeared to have been erased and redone.
     Sitting at the defense table, a shackled Brugnara let out a gasp of vexation, threw his reading glasses across the table and scowled at the gallery. It had been his contention all along that the art was valueless, though he never examined the art himself or had it appraised.
     Gaillard, who is not an authenticator, said he could not say the de Koonings are fake. “I cannot use the word fake because I am not authorized to say such a thing. My view is that that they have no commercial value,” he said.
     The defense’s art expert Victor Wiener said he would never use the term “no commercial value,” and that while he appraised the de Koonings at $80,000, he too found the signatures suspect.
     Specifically, he said the “d” and “e” in de Kooning’s signature ought to be closer together. But in the works sold to Brugnara they appeared to be separated.
     “To the unaided eye they both say de Kooning, so I don’t see your point,” Alsup said on examining one of the signatures.
     Throughout the hearing, Alsup made his view of the experts clear, telling Wiener at varying points: “All experts do is speculate” and, “You’re an expert; all you’re doing is speculating anyway.”
     Wiener said he had viewed countless authentic de Koonings in preparing his report. “When you see the real de Koonings, the ‘d’ and ‘e’ are squashed together, which you see over and over,” he said.
     Wiener questioned whether the Degas was worth more than $600,000. Though he hadn’t seen the bronze, he doubted the government’s claim that it was worth at least $1.8 million. A bronze cast from the same Valsuani foundry in 1997 recently sold at a Hong Kong auction for that amount.
     Wiener said that auction houses like Sothebys and Christies have historically refused to sell Valsuani bronzes, and that the Hong Kong sale was “the only sale we’ve seen of a Valsuani bronze at auction.”
     “Chinese buyers as a group are less informed than Western buyers,” Wiener testified, adding that he was troubled by the South Korean auction house’s failure to disclose the auction catalogue documenting the bronze’s value and history.
     Alsup bristled at this, saying that because Wiener hadn’t seen the auction catalogue does not mean it does not exist.
     “You’re putting this beyond the reach of any ordinary mortal to put a value on it. You’re discounting based on not knowing,” Alsup said.
     Wiener stood by his opinion, saying: “The Valsuani bronze in this case is only worth $600,000.” He valued the entire lot of art at $895,000.
     Alsup said he would allow Brugnara’s lawyers to make the argument that he should be retried, but Brugnara had already raised the issue of the art’s value at trial, albeit rather ineptly.
     “Didn’t Mr. Brugnara throughout the trial attack the value of the art and attack Mr. Maibaum and Ms. Long? He took a gamble, rolled the dice, found out he lost, and now he wants to do it all over again,” Alsup said.
     “OK, maybe they were trying to defraud him. I told the jury that’s not a defense.
     “He sent a text saying it was a gift. Let’s say it was worth $100,000,” Alsup scoffed. “A $100,000 gift?”
     Alsup will sentence Brugnara on Oct. 8. He faces up to 20 years for each count of wire fraud, 20 years for mail fraud, 5 for perjury and 5 for escape.

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