Two Laguna Beach art gallery owners are awaiting extradition to New York City for allegedly selling counterfeit art by Damien Hirst, reportedly England's wealthiest artist.
Vincent Lopreto, 48, and Ronald Bell, 49, the owners of Jazzart studio at 1452 South Coast Hwy., are being held in Orange County Jail on New York warrants alleging first-degree identity theft and operating a scheme to defraud, according to Laguna Beach Police Capt. Jason Kravetz.
Hirst, a 48-year-old member of the group dubbed the “Young British Artists,” is known mostly for sculptures of dead animals, including a shark in formaldehyde in a vitrine.
Buyers complained of receiving Hirst artwork with forged signatures and phony letters of authenticity before police in New York launched the investigation that discovered tens of thousands of dollars worth of counterfeits had been sold via eBay to people in South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands and Japan.
Kravetz told City News Service that, at one point, New York City police asked Laguna Beach police watch one piece of art being mailed. The Orange County agency also helped with surveillance and searches, the spokesman added.
A search of the Jazzart uncovered more Hirst counterfeits, tools used for reproductions and phony letters of authenticity, and receipts from other buyers that may lead to additional charges against Lopreto and Bell being filed in OC, according to Kravetz. Anyone with information that can help in the local investigation is asked to call Laguna Beach Police Detective Larry Bammer at 949.497.0368.
Lopreto has a previous art fraud conviction that earned him a five-year stretch. New York Observer had an interesting story last year on how an art broker who Lopreto sold what were billed as sets of limited edition prints from Hirst's much-ballyhooed “spot” collection in 2006 found himself on the wrong side of the law also. Lopreto was called “a serial fraudster” in that piece.
The Jazzart website features the bio of only one owner, known only as Vincent Gerard:
It states he was “born and raised in Brooklyn to blue collar immigrant parents,” that he “studied fine arts at The Cooper Union in NYC and design at Royal Academy of Arts, London,” and that his gallery is dedicated to the album covers of artist David Stone Martin.
That's what caught the attention of reporter Michael Miller in a June 23 story in the Los Angeles Times that includes this curious bit about Gerard's then-new gallery:
The founder of Jazzartz got the idea for his project when he went shopping for fine-art prints of work by David Stone Martin, who designed more than 400 album covers for Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and others. Gerard was unable to find any, though, so he began creating them himself–buying albums on eBay, contacting the artist's estate and making digital replicas of original works.
Miller's story included Gerard saying he was in talks to open a second gallery in Palm Springs.