Scheme: The Re-Con Mission

A recent dinner at the southampton home of Spanish painter Gines Serran-Pagan was simple – pasta and salad – but the guests, who chatted about their art collections, stock portfolios, and East End estates, were illustrious. The daughter of Sony International’s president was at the table, as were a well-to-do society art dealer known simply as Pierre and a couple of Greek shipping heiresses. Seated next to Serran-Pagan was the evening’s guest of honor: the venture capitalist, art connoisseur, and scion of the noted New York family Christopher Rockefeller.

At one end of the table stood an easel with a recent Serran-Pagan work – a sultry oil of a sunset in Quilin, China. It was one of several Serran-Pagan paintings – a half-million dollars’ worth – that Rockefeller was negotiating to buy for his Fifth Avenue penthouse and his mansion on Further Lane in East Hampton. But there would be time for business later, Serran-Pagan announced. All but one of the guests knew that the real matter at hand was sport: A con man was going to meet his match – make that matches. The Sony president’s daughter was really Natsuko Utsumi, a Japanese photojournalist with no connections to the electronics empire; Pierre, the dealer, was actually Peter Fazio, a Hampton Bays electrician whose son plays with Serran-Pagan’s child. The rich Greeks were myself, a People bureau chief, and my brother’s girlfriend, Clea, a U.S. Navy lawyer.

And Christopher Rockefeller? He was a French-born swindler named Fabien Ortuno who had no idea that, for once, he was the one being conned. A week before the July 29 dinner, the slight, blond “Rockefeller,” in signature chinos and silk shirt, had dropped by Serran-Pagan’s gallery, the Red Barn Atelier in Southampton, and waxed rhapsodic about the paintings he wanted to buy. All he needed, he told the artist, was Serran-Pagan’s bank-account numbers so he could wire the money. The artist was circumspect, and the two agreed to meet again. A few days later, Serran-Pagan heard from friends that “Rockefeller” had allegedly scammed several Hamptonites to the tune of $250,000 by promising to invest their money in the stock market.

Serran-Pagan decided to have some fun and enlisted help. His dinner guests listened with rapt attention as “Rockefeller” bragged about his friendships with Bill Clinton and the late Dodi Al-Fayed, and described his Dalís and Chagalls. Equally entertaining was his entourage – the chesty French girlfriend who claimed to be a model, and the balding, nervous personal assistant who spent the night making cell-phone calls until Clea pulled out a camera and snapped a photo of “Rockefeller.” The personal assistant ran around the table and tried to shield his boss, then produced a wad of cash, unsuccessfully demanding to buy the film. It was after midnight when the threesome left, promising to resume negotiations the following week.

But on August 2, Ortuno was picked up by East Hampton police on Main Street and arrested on two theft-of-services charges – for tabs of $5,000 and $11,000 at inns in Amagansett and East Hampton – and one charge of false impersonation. He is being investigated for other crimes in the Hamptons. Ortuno posted $45,000 bond and handed over his passport but was a no-show for his August 9 court date; another is set for September 7. Serran-Pagan, who lost no money other than the modest costs of the dinner, has the occasional pang of regret over the dinner of deception. “Maybe he just wanted to believe he was a Rockefeller,” the artist sighs. “He really did seem to love that painting.”

Scheme: The Re-Con Mission