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Israeli Arrested in International Art Forgery Ring

Joint Israeli and German operation led to suspected ringleader Itzhak Zarug

Daniel Estrin
August 05, 2013
Police present paintings in question at press event in Wiesbaden, Germany.(AP)
Police present paintings in question at press event in Wiesbaden, Germany.(AP)

This weekend’s Haaretz magazine featured a riveting cover story (Hebrew only) about a suspected Israeli-led international multimillion-dollar art forgery ring. The case was published in brief by Germany’s Der Spiegel on Thursday; citing German privacy laws, it named one of the two suspected Israeli ringleaders arrested only as Itzhak Z.

But Israeli investigative reporter Roni Zinger digs deeper, introducing readers to Itzhak Zarug, a charismatic, 66-year-old Israeli art dealer from a Tel Aviv suburb arrested in Germany in June as part of a joint operation by Israeli and German authorities. There were raids on apartments and art galleries in Israel and Germany, further raids in Cyprus, Switzerland, and Spain, and more than 1,000 works of art were confiscated by cooperating authorities. 18 others in Israel have been arrested, from Israeli art appraisers to money changers to those suspected of forging certificates of authenticity for the art works.

Zinger’s story, published last Friday in Hebrew and likely to appear in Haaretz’s English edition this coming weekend (when their magazine features are usually translated into English), opens with a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones flick:

Detectives of the (Israeli Police’s) Unit for International Crime Investigations at first thought it was a mistake. For a few weeks in the summer of 2011, they were eavesdropping on members of a large crime organization, prime targets for the Israeli Police. But instead of receiving information on drug shipments, assassinations and weapons, they kept hearing chatter about “the treasure.” And not just any treasure: Bars of gold melted, supposedly, from Jewish jewelry and buried during World War Two somewhere in the ground in Germany.

Alerted by Israeli police, Zinger writes, German investigators found a group of Israeli mobsters digging in a village near Munich. After a brief interrogation, they were released without charge, and the Israelis returned home. Israeli police continued to follow their trail, and it led to Yitzhak Zarig, a 66-year-old Israeli art dealer from a Tel Aviv suburb with no previous criminal record. He supposedly claimed to own an old treasure map, the proverbial X marking the spot where the gold was hidden in Germany. Scholars at Yad Vashem found no basis to the claim of buried treasure.

That was but a prelude to this June, when Zarig came to interest Israeli and German police not for a Nazi fairy tale but for something they claimed was much more real. German police arrested him in his apartment in Wiesbaden, Germany, and seized suspected forged masterpieces. So far, Der Spiegel reports, German police believe that since 2011, Zarig and his partner sold seven alleged Russian avant-garde paintings for more than 2.53 million Euros (about $3.35 million).

As Zinger explains, art works of the Russian avant-garde, the transition period between Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union which gave birth to painters like Kandinsky and Malevich (some also group Chagall into the genre), are the hottest category of paintings on the international forgery circuit. Lists of painters’ works are incomplete, and a number of lost paintings from the period have resurfaced, making it easy to claim you’ve found a Kandinsky in your grandmother’s attic. What’s more, it turns out it’s easier to mimic the squiggly lines of Russian avant-garde works than to copy the Mona Lisa. And it’s still possible to buy the same exact canvas and paints that Russian avant-garde artists used. According to an unnamed art expert in the story, some of the most talented forgers of Russian avant-garde art are Soviet-born artists who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s.

Zinger’s hunt for the source of allegedly forged works took her to the art galleries of Jaffa’s flea market and central Tel Aviv. Gallery owners have been embroiled in a number of recent and curious legal battles, one of which involves a possibly forged Chagall work. Art dealer Zarig, Haaretz reported, is connected to each and every case. He’s “the type that knows how to sell ice to Eskimos,” an anonymous acquaintance is quoted as saying. He even reportedly told some of his associates that he was a Mossad spy operative. Police in Israel are only beginning to investigate the suspected crime ring.

The sources Zinger quotes in her magazine story are Judaica dealers, and as she correctly writes, “their testimony about the authenticity of Judaica items throughout the world – including those in respected collections and exhibited in well-regarded museums – is shocking.”

“When I enter a certain respected museum [the name of which Haaretz keeps anonymous] and go through the Judaica collection, I can tell you with certainty about some of the items on display of which there is no connection between what they are claimed to be to what they really are. I know, because those are forged pieces that once passed into my hands! It’s not antique, it’s hot out of the oven,” one of the dealers says.

Yariv Egozi, an Israeli art authenticator, tells of art counterfeiters who temporarily lend their works to museums, which in turn lend the works an air of authenticity, helping forgers sell their works later on the private market. He cites a well-known European museum currently exhibiting high-end Jewish art works:

“More than 80 percent of what’s displayed is phony. There are things that were never created in (the history of) Judaism that are exhibited there. It makes me explode. I went to speak with the curator who admitted to me that she knows she made a mistake and bought items from a dealer that afterwards she realized sold her forged goods.”

Moral of the story: if you’re on the prowl for high-end Judaica, or if you’re offered a “newly discovered” Kandinsky, be careful.

Daniel Estrin is a print and radio journalist. His stories have been featured in outlets including The Associated Press, The Atlantic, NPR and Public Radio International.