Soon, curious stories began to emerge—almost always from people in Tokyo who said they’d dealt with Sakhai. Flush with cash in the nineties, Tokyo companies and collectors had developed an enormous appetite for Impressionist work, and Sakhai apparently found many eager buyers in the “Tokyo bubble.” For example, the FBI says, in 1990 Sakhai bought La Nappe Mauve by Marc Chagall at a Christie’s auction, for $312,000. Three years later, he sold what appeared to be La Nappe Mauve to a Tokyo collector for $514,000. The collector resold the painting, too, and after it switched hands a few times, the new owner put it up for auction at the Galerie Koller in Zurich.
The gallery’s director, Cyril Koller, was about to put the painting on the cover of his auction catalogue when he got, he says, a funny feeling. He decided to look into its authenticity. Sakhai had originally sold the painting with an accompanying certificate issued by the Comité Chagall, a French organization that authenticates all Chagalls. Koller faxed the certificate to France for verification; it checked out. But Koller was still suspicious, so he compared the painting closely to a photograph of it on the certificate. He noticed that the brush strokes were off, and “the colors were strange, a little bit,” he recalls. It was a fake.
Koller had figured out the key element of the forger’s scheme: When he copied a painting, he took the genuine certificate of authenticity and slapped it on the duplicate—thus making it much easier to pass off. Any buyer who looked at the certificate would assume the counterfeit was real. And the original painting could be sold with confidence later on, sans certificate, since it was the genuine item. In fact, Sakhai did precisely that: In 1999, he sold the real La Nappe Mauve at Christie’s for $340,000.
The scheme had one obvious risk, of course: the existence of twin paintings. Over time, several surreal situations emerged in which two seemingly identical paintings cropped up at the same time, like models arriving at a party wearing the same “unique” designer gown. According to the FBI, Sakhai sold a forged copy of Marie Laurencin’s Jeune Fille à la Mandoline to a Tokyo buyer in 1995 for approximately $28,100 (the buyer paid by trading two paintings of combined equal value). The painting was resold a few times and then eventually consigned for auction at Christie’s in 1997—whereupon Christie’s realized that Sakhai also owned the same painting. In another case, a buyer sent to Christie’s a Marc Chagall, called Les Maries au Bouquet de Fleurs, that he had bought from Sakhai. The auctioneers initially sold it for $450,000, then realized that it was a fake; they then rescinded the sale and sent the painting back to its owner. In 1998, a buyer in Taipei reportedly paid Sakhai $80,000 for a supposed Chagall, Le Roi David Dans le Paysage Vert, as well as a Renoir. When he sent Le Roi David to the Comité Chagall for verification, the group declared it a fake—whereupon the French authorities destroyed it. Sotheby’s later discovered that the Renoir was bogus as well.
Soon, enough Asian customers had been burned that word began getting out about Sakhai. Kara Besher, owner of Maru Gallery in Tokyo, had a client who was interested in a Sakhai painting—a “large, gorgeous Modigliani, desirable year, stellar provenance”—but wanted Besher to examine it. Besher met Sakhai at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, where he would often conduct sales while in town. He introduced himself as a French art dealer, and Besher was alarmed to see that he’d stacked several apparently valuable paintings casually against the wall. He brought out the Modigliani. She was unimpressed.
“I am not an expert in the artist’s work,” she later wrote in an e-mail, “but the painting didn’t evidence the signs of age one would normally expect. It looked almost comically fresh and new.” (She leaned in closely to see if she could smell fresh paint, but her nose was overwhelmed by Sakhai’s cologne.) She advised her client against buying the painting. Another gallery owner, Y. Mano, also met Sakhai at the hotel, where he was shown works by Monet and Laurencin. He, too, declined: “Fake,” he says bluntly. “No good.”
In the U.S., even the auction houses were beginning to cast a suspicious eye toward Sakhai. Sure, the paintings he was selling would check out fine: They were, after all, real. But Tokyo collectors kept claiming they had the same ones. “Every time we put a painting from [Sakhai] in, we’d get a phone call from around the world saying, What are you doing with my painting?” says the former Christie’s specialist.
They began to question Sakhai more closely; Sakhai denied having anything to do with the fakes. On the contrary, he noted, he often consigned paintings to other dealers—so who knows what happened while the paintings were out of his control? The questioning didn’t seem to faze him. He was “very matter-of-fact” about it, the specialist adds: “Not aggressively defensive.”
Yet one Manhattan antiquities dealer familiar with Sakhai says he, too, noticed clues. For example, he says, Sakhai would regularly buy up old, rather worthless paintings. They’re known to be useful in forgery circles, since a forger can paint a dupe on top of the old canvas, giving the fabrication a facsimile of age. “Everybody who was selling them to him would know what he was doing with them. He wouldn’t care what the painting was,” says the dealer. “It’s been notorious.”
By the late nineties, Special Agent Jim Wynne of the FBI in New York had begun to make inquiries. The FBI will not comment on its investigation, other than to say it took “longer than a couple of years” to assemble the case. But as Wynne interviewed art dealers in New York and Tokyo, Sakhai learned that the noose was closing around him. “Mr. Sakhai has been keenly aware of the existence of this investigation . . . for close to five or six years at this point,” Sakhai’s lawyer, James Keneally, noted at Sakhai’s initial court appearance on March 9. Indeed, he added, Sakhai “knew beyond any doubt” that the FBI was preparing to move in and have him charged.
If it took a long time for the FBI to bring Sakhai in, observers say, it was probably because international forgery scams are notoriously complex. The FBI would have had to cooperate with police forces in several countries, hunting down dealers undoubtedly reticent to discuss how they’d been hoodwinked. Besides, the art experts are French, the collectors are Japanese, and the need to translate everything seems to have impeded the process.