In his first television interview, the elderly artist whose look-alike paintings in the styles of Abstract Expressionists including Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock fooled experts and sent shock waves through the art world claims he was ”shocked” to learn that his works were sold as newly discovered masterpieces to wealthy collectors for tens of millions of dollars.
“When I made these paintings, I had no idea they would represent them as the real thing to sell,” said Pei Shen Qian in an interview to be broadcast Tuesday on “World News With Diane Sawyer” and “Nightline” as part of an ABC News investigation of the fake art industry and the Long Island fraud ring that flooded the market with over $80 million in forged work.
Now under federal indictment in New York on charges of fraud, Qian has moved from his studio in the New York borough of Queens to a small apartment on the outskirts of Shanghai where ABC News found him.
“My intent wasn’t for my fake paintings to be sold as the real thing,” Qian said. “They were just copies to put up in your home if you like it.”
But according to the federal grand jury indictment, Qian created some 63 look-alike versions of the abstract work of Rothko and Pollock and others and lied to FBI agents about his role in the fraud.
The indictment charges that Qian claimed he was unfamiliar with the names of certain artists “whose names Qian had repeatedly and fraudulently signed on paintings Qian created.”
Federal authorities say Qian was recruited to create the paintings by a Long Island, New York couple who began the fraud scheme in the early 1990s. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, of the Southern District of New York, called the defendants “modern masters of forgery and deceit” and said they “tricked victims into paying more than $33 million for worthless paintings, which they fabricated in the names of world-famous artists.”
One of those charged, Glafira Rosales, pleaded guilty to fraud, tax and money laundering charges last year and is reported to be cooperating with authorities in the ongoing investigation.
Her boyfriend and alleged partner, Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz, was arrested in Spain earlier this year on federal charges and the U.S. has asked for his extradition.
Authorities say Diaz discovered Qian’s talent as he painted on a Manhattan street corner in the early 1990s and began commissioning his works.
But Qian remains beyond the reach of American law because the U.S. has no extradition treaty with China.
When ABC News found him in Shanghai late last year, prior to the federal indictment, he said he was paid much less than the Long Island art dealers who hired him. They made millions off the paintings by telling galleries they represented a mystery man who had inherited a treasure trove of masterpieces and wished to remain anonymous. The indictment says Qian was often paid between $5,000 to $8,000 for a look-alike work.
“If you look at my bank account, you’ll see there is no income,” Qian said.
Painting a work in the style of a particular artist and signing a signature is not in itself a crime, however passing it off as an authentic work is illegal.
Qian says he no longer creates look-alike works and spends his time in a small, one bedroom apartment surrounded by hundreds of paintings signed in his own name. He was a well-known artist in China years before the Long Island ring was revealed, with frequent exhibitions and even a hardcover book published devoted to his life and work. Now, that work continues.
“Painting. Painting. Painting,” Qian said of how he spends his days. “Everything is done for painting.”
Additional reporting by ABC News’ Kaijing Xiao.