SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Accused art thief Luke Brugnara made a costly Edgar Degas sculpture “vanish from his garage,” federal prosecutors argued on the first day of a three-week trial for mail and wire fraud involving $11 million worth of fine art.
Brugnara, who is representing himself, pulled a first for U.S. Judge William Alsup when he interrupted the government’s opening statement to say he had to use the restroom.
Brugnara, 51, is accused of ordering and refusing to pay for $11 million of art, including Pablo Picasso etchings, Willem de Kooning drawings and an Edgar Degas bronze called “The Little Dancer.” Prosecutors added contempt and escape charges when he went on the lam in February during a furlough to meet with his attorney, who then withdrew from the case.
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Kingsley said Brugnara, a real estate investor, was “in a desperate financial situation” when he ordered the art from Rose Long for a museum he was allegedly building.
Brugnara refused to pay a deposit for the art, which arrived at his Seacliff home in five crates. The crates sat in his garage for six weeks while Long, who had traveled to San Francisco to oversee the unboxing and inspection of the art, desperately sought payment from Brugnara.
Kingsley said Brugnara “stalled for time to make the Degas sculpture vanish.”
The attorney then showed the jury a series of emails between Brugnara and Long. In one message, the accused fraudster says, “I look forward to putting them in my museum.”
FBI agents raided the garage in 2014, but did not recover the sculpture. The government claims Brugnara stole it.
Kingsley had hardly begun laying out the government’s case to the jury when Alsup stopped him, saying he had just received a note from Brugnara. “Do you really need to use the restroom?” the judge asked.
Brugnara did, so Alsup sent the jury out of the courtroom ten minutes into Kingsley’s opening statement while the accused used the facilities.
“Never in 16 years on the bench has one side interrupted an opening statement to use the facilities,” Alsup told Brugnara. “I believe that is a dirty trick.”
“I just don’t need to hear his opening statement,” Brugnara said as marshals led him out. “I’m not interested.”
Brugnara’s own opening statement sounded more like a closing. Kingsley repeatedly objected, and Alsup admonished Brugnara several times to “stick to the evidence.”
“This is what happens when I decide to go to the bathroom,” Brugnara told the jury, which he said he had personally hand-picked.
He also told them Long was trying to defraud him. He said Long knew the art was fake when she purchased it from New York dealer Walter Maibaum, who runs The Degas Sculpture Project and Modernism Fine Arts and sued Long in June 2014 for breach of contract and negligence in New York Federal Court.
“Two thieves tried to defraud me,” Brugnara said, referring to Maibaum and Long. “Maibaum sold her the fake art and she tried to dump it off on me.”
Brugnara also said he never had a contract with Long. “She lives in a different reality than the rest of us.”
He called the government’s prosecution a “witch hunt” orchestrated “to help their colleague pay his mortgage.”
Gesturing to the prosecution’s table, he added, “I have no fear of these people.”
Alsup cut Brugnara off before his allotted 40 minutes expired, as the man consistently veered away from the evidence and into emotional arguments and conjecture.
“Sometimes he gets carried away but don’t hold that against him,” the judge said.
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