How Con Artists Conned Other Con Artists With a Fake Goya Painting

Francisco de Goya.

The story began in 2003 when the Fonts acquired the painting 'Portrait of Antonio Maria Esquivel,' attributed to Francisco de Goya. (Image: via Public Domain)

Most of the time, con artists prey on victims that unknowingly fall into their trap. However, every once in a while, a con artist would also fall for other con artists.

Becoming a victim of conning is often hard on people, but rarely does it turn them into con artists themselves. However, this is what happened to two brothers from Spain when they bought a Goya painting that turned out to be a forgery.

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This is the story of how two victims decided to con someone else, leading to them being conned.

How it all started

Two brothers, James and John Font, natives of Girona, Spain, wanted to buy a Goya artwork for 270,000 euros, which they thought was real. However, the painting turned out to be fake.

The story began in 2003 when the Fonts acquired the painting Portrait of Antonio Maria Esquivel, attributed to Francisco de Goya.

The purchase was made at an auction that issued a certificate of authenticity for the painting. However, in doubt, the brothers decided to give the picture to independent examiners. The experts inspected the painting and found that it was a 19th-century counterfeit.

A court in Girona said the brothers could keep the painting for 20,000 euros instead of the total 270,000 euro price previously agreed on. The men decided to keep the image along with the certificate of authenticity before later using it to con other people.

The con artists were themselves conned.
The fake ‘Portrait of Antonio Maria Esquivel’ is surrounded by counterfeit Swiss francs. (Image: via Spanish National Police Corps.)

How the painting was used as a con

Years later, the men decided to use the forged artwork to con someone else. The person they were trying to fool was supposedly an Arab Sheikh. The Sheikh was reportedly wealthy, and the brothers agreed to sell it for 4 million euros in December 2014.

The tricky part was to contact the Sheikh; they had to go through an Italian middleman, which was reportedly part of the supposed Sheikh’s entourage. The middleman was supposed to meet them in Turin before the brothers traveled to Switzerland, where they received 1.7 million Swiss francs from the middleman as a downpayment.

In return, the middleman reportedly asked for 300,000 euros as a commission. The money was supposed to come from the brothers’ pockets. Instead, the brothers reportedly had to borrow 300,000 euros to pay the middleman’s commission.

This, however, was where the trouble started.

The fake Swiss francs

The brothers had no idea that the 1.7 million Swiss francs they received were fake and had already paid the middleman 300,000 euros. The brothers wanted to deposit the money in a bank in Geneva, where they discovered the money they had received was counterfeit.

The 1.7 million they received was literally photocopies of real Swiss francs, and the middleman and Sheikh they had been in contact with had ultimately disappeared. The brothers had just spent 300,000 euros for the supposed commission and received 1.7 million fake Swiss francs in return for the supposed downpayment for the counterfeit painting they were trying to sell.

Hungarian forger Elmyr de Hory had trouble selling his work but sold his forgeries for tens of thousands of dollars in the 1950s and 1960s. (Image: via Public Domain)

The brothers’ detainment

To make matters worse, the brothers were imprisoned when they returned home for attempted fraud, and the fake money was confiscated. The police also looked for the phony painting, which was found in the brothers’ house, and they seized it.

The brothers had lost not only the 20,000 euro painting, but also the 300,000 euros they paid for the middleman’s downpayment. To make things worse, the brothers had reportedly borrowed the money, which did not come out of their pocket, as they expected the returns to be much larger than the commission costs.

Money in forgeries

The story also shows how forgeries can still command a high price. Although not as much as the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars people would regularly sell them for, they still trade at high prices. An example is a Hungarian forger, Elmyr de Hory, who had trouble selling his own artwork, but he sold his forgeries for tens of thousands of dollars in the 1950s and 1960s.

Today, sophisticated systems and technologies are in place to detect fakes, with more readily-available experts to identify the authenticity of a piece of art. The ultimate con man of this story is the middleman of the supposed Arab Sheikh, who received 300,000 euros in exchange for photocopies of Swiss francs.

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