Daniel Elie Bouaziz was a major art dealer and official appraiser specializing in high quality works of art. His gallery Danieli and Danieli Fine Art in Palm Beach sold original, authentic, signed, limited edition works by iconic artists: Banksy, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring.
He told his wealthy clients that the pieces were “premium” investments. He obtained his best works from a mysterious “German billionaire”.
But the FBI claims that Bouaziz actually sold a fantasy of fakes.
On Wednesday, Bouaziz, 68, pleaded not guilty to charges of mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering as part of a lucrative scheme in which cheap copies were sold as high-quality original works of art. The FBI’s Art Crime Team charged Bouaziz with buying reproductions of artworks on auction websites, increasing the price, and selling the works to his unsuspecting gallery clients.
Court filings show the federal government is planning to seize several assets — including three Rolls Royces, a 70-foot boat and 10 properties in South Florida — which prosecutors claim Bouaziz bought with his tainted profits from selling artworks. In one instance, Bouaziz sold a fake Lichtenstein nude print for $70,000 and used the money to buy a Cartier watch, according to the FBI.
The government can only seize his assets if prosecutors get Bouaziz convicted.
A defense attorney for Bouaziz, who was released on $500,000 bail after his arrest in May, says his client has a long-standing reputation as a reputable art dealer. Attorney Howard Schumacher referred the Herald to a statement he had given to the New York Post.
“This government intervention has had an impact on his reputation and he wants to clarify that,” Schumacher told the Post.
The West Palm Beach case isn’t the only alleged art fraud scandal in Florida. Last month, the director of the Orlando Museum of Art lost his job over an exhibition the museum was putting on of Basquiat works that may not be authentic. The FBI raided the museum days earlier and tore the controversial artworks from the walls.
An FBI criminal complaint filed in the Bouaziz case includes interviews with six people who bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of artwork and found they had been scammed with counterfeits. The document also mentions three witnesses who noticed something was wrong on Worth Avenue, an exclusive part of Palm Beach where Bouaziz’s galleries were located.
A witness told the FBI that in October 2021, several fake Haring artworks hung on the walls of one of Bouaziz’s galleries. The witness, who said the works were obviously fake, estimated Bouaziz would only need to sell a few fake pieces a month to cover his costs, according to an affidavit accompanying the lawsuit.
A second witness spoke to the FBI about counterfeit Banksy work at Danieli Fine Art. The prices offered by Bouaziz did not seem right to the witness as legitimate Banksy work would be worth millions of dollars. The witness added that there was one signed Basquiat work that was “1,000% counterfeit,” according to the affidavit.
A third witness visited Danieli Fine Art in March 2021 and viewed over 30 artworks, none of which appeared to be genuine, the document said. This witness said he knew of an art collector who bought a Warhol piece called “Superman” with a fake stamp on the back.
This “art collector” may actually have been an undercover agent.
Last September, an FBI agent with a hidden camera and microphone entered the Danieli gallery and recorded conversations with Bouaziz, the affidavit said.
The undercover agent and Bouaziz discussed several artworks at the gallery, including an original Warhol’s Superman and a rare screenprint of Lichtenstein’s The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Bouaziz insisted that according to the document, the artworks are not only legitimate but also major investments.
“You can’t lose money here,” Bouaziz added, pointing to the Lichtenstein print.
The agent asked about the Warhol signature on the “Superman” piece.
“That’s very rare … He did um, he did um, he did a hundred of ‘Superman,’ a hundred of them,” Bouaziz said, according to the affidavit. The back of the piece was stamped “CMOA,” which stands for the Carnegie Museum of Art in Warhol’s hometown of Pittsburgh.
Bouaziz also offered to sell the agent a painting of a blue dog by George Rodrigue for $48,000.
The agent settled on the Warhol piece and bought it from Bouaziz for $25,000, the affidavit said. But before the gallery shipped the Warhol piece, the agent called and asked to exchange it for the Lichtenstein print. The gallery obliges.
The FBI agents found evidence of possible forgery in the artworks, the affidavit said.
The CMOA stamp on the Warhol piece was particularly suspicious. An FBI agent contacted the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and spoke to a representative who said he was not aware of any partnership with the Carnegie Museum to print a “Superman” series. A representative of the Carnegie Museum said it has never released any “Superman” prints and the museum does not have a “CMOA” stamp.
An FBI agent contacted Rodrigue Studio, the exclusive gallery for Rodrigue’s work, and showed a curator the signature on the painting. “Definitely fake,” said the curator. An invoice from an online live auction site says Bouaziz bought the painting for $140.
The Lichtenstein print was no better, the affidavit states. A Bouaziz gallery employee told the undercover agent that Bouaziz got the pressure from Hans Shemke, a “German billionaire who lived in Peru.” (Latin American news outlets have reported on a man named Hans-Wolfgang Schemke, who has his own history of allegedly forged paintings.) But records show that Bouaziz did not buy anything from Shemke. He paid 450 euros for a Spanish company to print it.
The FBI examined the fake Lichtenstein print when it arrived in the mail. The signature was forged and made to appear to have been signed with a pencil, the FBI claims.
In December, the undercover agent returned to the Bouaziz gallery for a major purchase. This time the agent bought a collection of works said to be by Basquiat, Banksy, Haring and Georgia O’Keeffe. The grand total was $22,000,000.
The Banksy work was sold for $140,000. Bouaziz actually bought it from Black River Auction, allegedly started by a man jailed for selling counterfeit goods, for $518.40, according to the FBI affidavit.
Bouaziz discussed Basquiat’s work with the undercover agent back in September. He claimed to have gotten the work from Shemke, who bought it from the Basquiat family. Bouaziz and the agent agreed on the price: $12,000,000.
The FBI provided images of the artwork to a member of the Authentication Committee of the late artist’s estate. Another fake, said the Basquiat expert. According to the affidavit, Bouaziz purchased the Basquiat work for $495.
Bouaziz’s alleged plan came to an abrupt end on December 15, 2021, when the FBI executed search warrants on his galleries. Agents found documents and invoices from clients who appeared to have paid thousands for counterfeit artwork since 2020, federal prosecutor Sarah Schall said in the affidavit.
One person paid Bouaziz a $200,000 deposit before purchasing several works, one of which was a print of Warhol’s “Superman,” the affidavit said. (It’s unclear if this was the same “Superman” with the fake stamp offered to the undercover agent.) The client ended up spending $860,000 on fake artwork.
When the alleged victim found out about the investigation, they contacted Bouaziz and asked for a refund of their deposit. He returned $100,000, the document said. Other customers have also received some payback from Bouaziz.
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Another person bought a “Holy Grail” of four artworks for $290,000. A group of contacts in New York told the client that the work “looked good”. The price is too good to be true, the group said. According to the FBI, they were right.
One person and their significant other told the FBI they bought two original Warhol pieces, “AND I LOVE YOU SO” and “Converse Sneakers in Conversation,” for a total of $125,000. The client later hired an art damage adjuster who said both were not original.
In fact, the real original track “AND I LOVE YOU SO” wasn’t even anywhere near South Florida. It’s in the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The version of the play that the customer purchased was a copy licensed for use in a children’s book. The second artwork, the affidavit states, is not even based on a well-known Warhol piece.
Bouaziz bought the copy of AND I LOVE YOU SO for $100, the document said. He sold it to the customer for $85,000.
The alleged victim was new to art collecting.
This story was produced as part of an independent journalism grant program with financial support from the Pérez Family Foundation in association with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald retains full editorial control of this work.
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