Respected Pre-Colombian art dealers indicted over fraud

The Merrin brothers are accused of defrauding clients out of millions of dollars


Edward and Samuel Merrin, the father-and-son dealers of pre-Columbian art and antiquities at the Merrin Gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York, were indicted on 2 March. They are alleged to have defrauded two major customers over 10 years, during which time the clients paid the Merrins over $63 million for art purchases.

The Merrins falsely overstated their costs for art they sold to the husband and wife, says the indictment. This was “defrauding the victims out of millions of dollars”, said the government.

The charges include one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and three counts of mail fraud citing the use of commercial interstate carriers. The indictment does not identify the couple, but they are believed to be prominent New York collectors.

The couple met Edward Merrin at a lecture on pre-Columbian textile art at the Merrin Gallery, the indictment says, and after buying over 50 art objects for several million dollars, proposed a purchase arrangement. Under this deal, the price of an object would be the cost to the gallery, plus a commission, with initial commission rates of 10 to 20%. While Edward Merrin initially resisted the arrangement, in 1989 the Merrins accepted the proposal, which was “confirmed orally and by handshakes”, the indictment says, adding that the Merrins entered into the agreement with the understanding that the victims would buy “large volumes of art”. The price agreement excluded art which might have appreciated in value after being owned by dealers for a significant period of time, the indictment says.

By overstating their acquisition cost for certain sales, the Merrins increased both the cost component of the price plus the commission, the indictment says.

The alleged transactions included the sale of the mid-fifth century BC Italic Umbrian Warrior, invoiced at a cost of $260,000 plus 20% commission but actually bought by the gallery for about $212,500, and Olmec seated figure (about 1200-700 BC), invoiced at a cost of $350,000 plus 15% commission but actually bought for about $150,000, the indictment says.

In 1994, the Merrins invoiced the buyers $910,000 for four “objects from a private collection”, including a Monkey of the God Xochipilli, but the actual cost to the gallery was only about $375,000, the indictment says. Mask of a bearded ruler—perhaps a shaman king (900-600 BC) was invoiced at a price of $1.12 million plus a 10% commission, but the object had cost the gallery only about $390,000, the indictment says. In all, the indictment alleges 11 fraudulent transactions.

David N. Kelley, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, praised the investigative work of the US Postal Inspection Service which resulted in the charges.

“The Merrin Gallery is considered one of the best galleries of its kind in the world with an impeccable reputation for honesty”, Benjamin Brafman, a New York lawyer who represents Samuel Merrin, told The Art Newspaper. He said that, “The Merrins intend to fight these charges and are confident that they will be exonerated”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Pre-Colombian art dealers indicted'