The crate that arrived at JFK airport would not have caught anyone’s eye. According to the shipping label, it contained an unnamed painting valued at $100.
Turns out that valuation was off by about $7,999,800.
Far from some amateur’s daubing, the canvas inside, Hannibal, was actually a 1981 work by Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Last week, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara said that the painting was on its way to Brazil, where authorities for nearly a decade have said it belongs.
By the time the crate turned up at JFK in 2007, authorities on three continents had been searching for the painting, along with a number of other works by masters like Roy Lichtenstein and Serge Poliakoff. The paintings had once been part of the collection of Edemar Cid Ferreira, a wealthy Brazilian banker. Ferreira had been arrested in a major embezzling and money laundering scheme, and had bought the paintings to hide his ill-gotten millions.
Though Ferreira had been convicted in 2006, the Brazilian authorities were still trying to track down his art collection, which was scattered around the world. All told, Ferreira had more than $20 million worth of paintings, all of which rightly belonged to the Brazilian government in compensation for his crimes. Authorities in Brazil enlisted Interpol and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to locate the works, and the agencies have been tracking them down, one at a time, over the years. The Lichtenstein was recovered and repatriated in 2010, and a work by Poliakoff was returned in 2014.
The Basquiat was determined to be fair game for seizure in the U.S. because it had been imported in violation of customs laws. Recovered by Homeland Security agents in New Haven, Connecticut, it was then confiscated under civil forfeiture laws.
As the New York Times reported in 2013, Ferreira’s use of valuable artwork to launder his money is an increasingly popular choice for criminals. In an industry that still often operates with handshakes, and with few regulations governing the sale of works worth many millions of dollars, it’s an attractive place to shield assets from government eyes.
The art world also attracts other kinds of shady dealings. We wrote last year about Brian Ramnarine, a forger based in Long Island City, who capitalized on the informality of the trade to churn out perhaps millions of dollars in unauthorized sculptures by artists like Jasper Johns and Kenny Scharf. He was able to get away with his scheme for decades before finally ending up in prison.
“Art and antiquities have special value and meaning that cannot readily be quantified,” Bharara said in a press release. “As a result, they have long been the subject of theft and deception, as well as a means to launder illicit proceeds. Art should serve to inspire the mind and nourish the soul, and not be allowed to become a conduit for crime.”