Art dealer brushes up against the law as lucrative painting sales are mired in infringement claims

Giuliano Ruffini has been placed under house arrest and electronic surveillance in France – Baptiste Giroudon/Paris Match via Getty Images

He is the famous art dealer accused of being the “evil genius” behind forgeries so convincing they duped the National Gallery in London and tricked Sotheby’s into parting with millions of pounds.

Today Giuliano Ruffini, 77, faces what could be his last brush with justice after being charged with the art world’s ‘crime of the century’, following suspicions over a series of works “recently discovered” by the old masters.

The suave Franco-Italian will face a possible trial, accused of organized fraud, forgery and money laundering in Paris. He is accused of deceiving private art collectors, auction houses and famous museums, including the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It took eight years of investigation involving tens of millions of pounds to crack the alleged counterfeit ring. The ring had been claimed to implicate his friend, Italian painter Lino Frongia – known as the ‘Moriarty of Fakers’, who is believed to be the real artist behind the fakes. It was not tried for forgery.

The list of forged works of art attributed to Mr. Ruffini is long and lucrative.

They include a painting of Saint Jerome believed to be by 16th-century Italian artist Parmigianino which was auctioned at Sotheby’s for around £700,000 and later exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

After experts allegedly found modern pigment in the painting, it was declared fake and Sotheby’s was forced to refund the price to the buyer.

Saint Jerome painting was auctioned at Sotheby's and sold for around £700,000 - Sotheby's

Saint Jerome painting was auctioned at Sotheby’s and sold for around £700,000 – Sotheby’s

The London auction house had previously suffered embarrassment selling Portrait of a Man, believing it to be an authentic painting by Dutch artist Frans Hals.

The painting generated so much excitement when it was presented at a Paris auction house in 2008 that the Louvre launched a £4.4 million fundraising campaign in hopes of adding it to his collection.

Ultimately, the Louvre did not acquire the painting. Instead, London-based art dealer Mark Weiss bought it from Ruffini for around £2.6m and then sold it for £8.9m in a private sale. through Sotheby’s.

Portrait of Man by Franz Hals sold for £8.9m in private sale - Sotheby's

Portrait of Man by Franz Hals sold for £8.9m in private sale – Sotheby’s

Once again, Sotheby’s was forced to reimburse the buyer for the full price of the painting, while Mr Ruffini insisted that the works be checked by experts.

Venus with a Veil, linked to German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, was sold to the Prince of Liechtenstein for £6.1million in 2013. It was also believed to be a fake two years later .

Venus with a Veil was also believed to be a fake, having been sold to the Prince of Liechtenstein for £6.1million - Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Venus with a Veil was also believed to be a fake, having been sold to the Prince of Liechtenstein for £6.1million – Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Mr. Ruffini and Mr. Frongia protest their innocence. The dealer claims that he was simply lucky enough to obtain the lost works of Jan or Pieter Brueghel, Van Dyck, Correggio, Van Bassen and many others during a brilliant career.

In 2019, Mr Frongia was arrested in connection with a fake El Greco painting titled San Francesco seized in 2016. Italy rejected an extradition request from France citing lack of evidence, and he was released on bail and the case was dropped.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Ruffini’s talent for constantly finding missing masterpieces aroused suspicion. But it was not until 2014, after French authorities received a lengthy anonymous letter linking Mr Ruffini to forgeries, that police opened a formal investigation.

In 2019, a French judge issued an international arrest warrant for Mr Ruffini, who was then living in Italy. However, he was able to dodge extradition as he was also battling tax charges in Italy.

He was cleared of the tax charges earlier this year and in November Mr Ruffini traveled to Italy.

“He is determined to prove his innocence in court in France,” said Federico de Belvis, his lawyer, at the Italian police station where he went.

Mr Ruffini is reported to have fled his home in Vetto, Reggio Emilia, but his lawyer said he was unaware he was wanted by French authorities.

“Nobody knocked on his door,” he said. “He came because he read the warrant in the newspapers.”

Mr. Ruffini is now under house arrest and placed under electronic surveillance in France.

According to The Art Newspaper, Mr Ruffini pleads ignorance and squarely blames the experts, curators and dealers at the world’s top museums who authenticated the works.

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