Vase de Fleurs (Lilas) is not one of Paul Gauguin’s greatest works. It’s a “middle market” painting, which means it changes hands usually for only a few hundred thousand dollars, and without much fanfare. But in May 2000, the painting proved it could still turn heads. When Christie’s and Sotheby’s released spring catalogues for their modern-art auctions, they were alarmed to discover that each was offering the painting—and each house thought it had the original.
One of the paintings, clearly, was a fake. So the auction houses flew both paintings to Sylvie Crussard, a Gauguin expert at the Wildenstein Institute in Paris. She put them side by side and in a few minutes saw that Christie’s version was, in the delicate argot of the trade, “not right.” (The auction house just barely managed to yank its catalogue back from the printers in time.) Still, it was the best Gauguin counterfeit she’d ever seen. “This was a unique case of resemblance. You never see two works which are that similar,” Crussard marvels.
Christie’s broke the news to the horrified owners at the Gallery Muse in Tokyo, who’d had no idea it was a forgery. The real painting went back to Sotheby’s, where its owner—New York dealer Ely Sakhai—successfully auctioned it off for $310,000. But when the FBI traced the history of the fake, they discovered something even more surprising: The original source was none other than Ely Sakhai, too.
According to the FBI, Sakhai had bought the real Gauguin years earlier, cranked out a duplicate, and sold the illicit copy to a Tokyo collector. Then Sakhai brazenly put the original up for auction, in an attempt to double his profits. It was a pure fluke that the unwitting owner of the Tokyo forgery decided to resell his copy at the same time. But for that coincidence, the forgery might never have been detected.
The more the FBI pulled threads, the more fake paintings it uncovered—all Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and all traced back to Sakhai. On March 9, agents arrested him at his gallery on Broadway south of Union Square, a storefront crammed with antiques and paintings. They charged him with eight counts of wire and mail fraud. Sakhai had allegedly been running one of the most audacious forgery scams ever—a multi-million-dollar operation that has left art experts alternately amazed by his legerdemain and stunned by his shamelessness. In each case of forgery, the complaint says, Sakhai bought a little-known painting by a modern master, faked it, and then sold both the knockoff and the real one. To keep the duplicity hidden, he allegedly sold the fakes to buyers in Asia, the real ones at New York and London auctions. In total, the scheme grossed $3.5 million, according to FBI estimates.
But what was perhaps most interesting was how well this hustle exploited—and exposed—the frailties of the art marketplace. It is a world in which surprisingly few people are willing to stick their neck out and call a fake a fake, so that even as Sakhai’s scheme racked up victims, virtually no one was willing to call him on it. The forger knew this secret of the art world: It is tolerant of frauds, so long as the victims are in far-off places like Tokyo and too humiliated to raise a fuss. As if delivering a judo move, he used the particular quirks of art dealers against them. “We’re talking about a very, very clever scheme,” a former Christie’s modern-art specialist says.
Ely Sakhai would not, at first blush, seem to be a likely international man of mystery. He flew under the radar in the city’s art scene, rarely appearing at parties or art events. Before his arrest, many New York gallery owners had never heard of him.
The dealer with the low profile emigrated 35 years ago from Iran, and quickly established himself as a successful dealer in antiquities. He became known in the Iranian-American community of Old Westbury, a wealthy Long Island suburb. In the local restaurants, Sakhai is a familiar sight, showing up with his Japanese wife and groups of Iranian art-trade friends. He’s also beloved among the area’s ultra-Orthodox Chabad Jews, not least because he paid to build the Ely Sakhai Torah Center—a modest building that houses a few classrooms, run by Rabbi Aaron Konikov, who wouldn’t comment on the charges. “There are a lot of nice stories you could tell about this man” was all he’d say.
In Sakhai’s professional life, though, the stories were rather less pleasant. In the late eighties, he began to show up regularly at Christie’s and Sotheby’s to buy Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. He cut an unusual figure: A short man with a Clark Gable pencil-line mustache, he was a reserved figure, except for his outlandish outfits. The former Christie’s specialist remembers seeing Sakhai arriving in “cowboy boots and fringed stuff”; one dealer recalls a purple suit. Sakhai later switched to more conservative clothes, but he always carried himself like royalty. “He’d have these big, expensive rings. When you looked at him, you could tell there was money there,” says the dealer.
Though Sakhai bought famous artists like Chagall, Monet, and Laurencin, he didn’t buy their A-list art. He stuck exclusively to cheaper, lesser-known works of no more than a few hundred thousand dollars, tops. Still, “he made an impression because he bought a lot of work,” as the specialist recalls.