Italian pop art forgery scandal widens as six more works are now being sought

Public prosecutor Giuseppe Ferrando pursues fakes tied to JZ Art gallery


The public prosecutor of Turin has widened his investigation into fake Italian pop art. Initially, the case focused on a work seized from the collection of the former Formula 1 boss Flavio Briatore (The Art Newspaper, November 2011, p1). Giuseppe Ferrando, the public prosecutor, seized an allegedly fake work by the late Italian pop artist Mimmo Rotella, Wise, 1962, from Briatore’s collection late last year. We understand that the authorities are now looking for a further six pieces said to be by Rotella that they believe are forged. Italian art dealers claim, however, that the investigation has not damaged Rotella’s market. A work by the late French sculptor Arman, which may be fake, is also being investigated.

The works are connected to the defunct gallery of the French football star Jonathan Zebina, who played for the Turin club Juventus from 2004 to 2010. He owned the Milan-based gallery JZ Art, which is now shut. Fabrizio Quiriti, the former artistic director of JZ Art, is another key figure. Zebina says that he has taken out criminal lawsuits against Quiriti for his alleged negligent management and administration of the gallery, which Zebina claims led to its closure.

The Art Newspaper understands that the public prosecutor is investigating claims that Quiriti introduced fake works to the inventory of JZ Art supplied by Michelangelo Lanza, an art and carpets dealer based in the village of Viguzzolo, east of Turin.

Untangling the relationships between everyone and identifying the place in the chain where the forgeries originated is proving a challenge for the prosecutors. In 2008, Briatore acquired 38 works by Rotella for €400,000 from JZ Art Trading, including Wise, which was seized by the public prosecutor in Turin late last year. The work, which hung in Briatore’s Monte Carlo home, would be worth an estimated €30,000 if authentic. Briatore and Zebina were called in to the Palace of Justice in Turin as witnesses last October and are not suspected of any wrongdoing.

Briatore says that he then left Wise and other pieces in storage at JZ Art. Later, he says, Quiriti asked him if he would like to swap some of the 38 works, presumably for better pieces, and Briatore agreed. Eventually, a number of works, including Wise, left the gallery and went into Briatore’s possession. The prosecutors seized Wise and two other works from Briatore’s premises.

At this point, Lanza becomes part of the equation. When The Art Newspaper met the dealer in Milan in January, he denied that he had exchanged forged works by Rotella through Quiriti, saying instead that he had recently sold Wise and Punto Rosso, 1962, to JZ Art. Lanza stressed that he bought both pieces in 2008 from the gallery Studio AS Arte Contemporanea in Milan; a spokesman from the gallery confirmed that Lanza bought the pieces. An invoice produced by Lanza shows that both works cost him €40,000.

Quiriti says that he “asked Briatore to swap some works with others according to a series of agreements made from 2004 to 2005; the works that we substituted, apart from Wise, did not come from Lanza”. In a letter to The Art Newspaper (January 2012, p31) he says that he left JZ Art for personal reasons in July 2009. “I did not deliver the work titled Wise by Rotella: in fact, a number of works, including Wise, were delivered to Briatore in September or October 2009… by this time I was no longer working for Zebina,” he said.

Acquired in good faith

Monica Gambirasio, Zebina’s lawyer, gives a different version of events, saying that four collages on canvas and a sheet metal sculpture by Rotella, as well as Wise, were delivered by Quiriti to Briatore. “JZ Art acquired these works in good faith,” she says, adding that Quiriti and Briatore are “old friends… Briatore did business, linked to the sale of the works of art, in a completely independent way with Quiriti.” Briatore says: “I want to stress that I have full confidence in Quiriti’s good faith and in his professionalism.” Quiriti denies any wrongdoing.

There still remains the mystery over the whereabouts of six other works by Rotella that the public prosecutor believes are forged: Punto Rosso, Sabrina, Vanity Fair, Casino, Kronenbourg and Due Scarpe. “The prosecutor doubts the authenticity of these pieces, but I’ve no reason to see why as the Milan-based Rotella Foundation, which I contacted, has not cast doubts [on the works],” Quiriti says. The foundation declined to comment; Lanza says that these works have never been in his possession.

Perhaps surprisingly, Italian art dealers claim that the investigation is not, for now, having a detrimental effect on Rotella’s market. Both the Boxart Gallery in Verona and Blindarte gallery in Naples, which deal in Rotella’s work on the secondary market, vouch for the Rotella Foundation. “These archives help safeguard the market,” says Memmo Grilli of Blindarte. “The Rotella market is not vulnerable to forgeries,” says a spokeswoman for Boxart gallery, though she stresses that the value of Rotella’s works dropped after the 2008 financial crisis. “A piece that we would have sold in 2006 for €20,000 [can now be acquired] for €14,000,” she says.

The Turin-based investigation began when the authorities seized a work by Arman, featuring a dissected violin, from a Turin auction-house sale in 2010. The piece, consigned by a private collector and suspected to be a fake, was originally obtained from JZ Art.

Quiriti says there was confusion over the identification of the item but is now confident that the work in question “was sold by JZ Art and is completely authentic”. Gambirasio adds that the Arman piece under investigation was bought for €30,000 from Lanza, who insists that the work, which he bought from a publisher in Bordighera, is not forged.

“The market for works by Arman is prone to forgeries,” says a spokeswoman at Opera Gallery in London, which sells works by the sculptor. She says: “The major contemporary art collectors Denyse and Philippe Durand-Ruel stated in 2004 that there were a lot of Arman forgeries made in Italy.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Italian pop art forgery scandal widens'