The U.S. Postal Inspection Service

Operation Bogart

In 1991, the Postal Inspection Service, the Department of Justice, Interpol and the Federal Trade Commission cracked a billion dollar art forgery ring led by Leon Amiel. With his family, Amiel, a bookseller, printed counterfeit art works in a New Jersey warehouse. He forged artists’ signatures and sold these forgeries through the mail to unsuspecting buyers.

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This Marc Chagall reprint with forged signature was seized during Operation Bogart and stamped as evidence.

Led by Inspector Jack Ellis, the sting operation included the undercover purchase of 22 counterfeit works, and interviews with international art experts. The transaction and research led to a raid and the discovery of over 100,000 pieces of bogus art—or Bogart. Inspectors seized reproductions of work by Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso.

Postal Inspector Jack Ellis discusses crime lab comparisons

Postal Inspector Jack Ellis discusses crime lab comparisons of an artist’s real signature and the clues paper can offer.

Jack Ellis:  This is Postal Inspector Jack Ellis, team leader.  I was in charge of the Bogart Art Fraud case.

I actually made a trip to Figueres, Spain in an effort to interview Dali and to get some signatures.  Unfortunately, when I arrived he was within a few weeks of his death, but his secretary who met with me had kept copies of things he had signed over the last couple of years of his life.  She gave me those copies which I was able to provide to the crime lab with the fakes.  They were able to determine that his signature was no way at all the ones that were appearing on the prints.

The other factor that the crime lab was able to assist us in is that these fake prints were printed on Arches Rives very high quality paper which was probably a dollar or so a piece at the time, just the paper, but they had watermarks unknown to the faker that identified the year the paper was created.  Some of the fake prints which was supposedly going back into the ‘60s and ‘70s were printed on Arches Rives paper that didn’t exist until the late ‘80s or so and obviously could not have been what was being represented as an original print.

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Postal Inspector Jack Ellis with prints from the Operation Bogart case.

Postal Inspector Jack Ellis suspected that the 100,000 pieces of fake artwork seized in Operation Bogart were just the tip of the iceberg. He was right. More forgeries surfaced in 2008 when investigators nabbed Leon Amiel’s grandson and two accomplices in another sting operation.

Postal Inspector Jack Ellis describes the Amiel’s art fraud scheme

Postal Inspector Jack Ellis describes the undercover sting he and fellow inspectors used to crack the Amiel’s art fraud scheme.

Jack Ellis:  This is Postal Inspector Jack Ellis, team leader.  I was in charge of the Bogart Art Fraud case in New York from approximately 1985 all the way through until 1995.

In order for us to be able to infiltrate or get the evidence on the Amiels, we've developed an undercover case in which Inspector Waiman Leung and Ray Hang posing as Asian art dealers approached the Amiels because we knew that they didn’t have yet a market in Asia in that area and thought that, that might attract them and asked them if they had anything for sale.  Through a series of recorded conversations with the daughters and the wife of Leon Amiel, we were able to obtain evidence to obtain a search warrant of a warehouse in Island Park, New York, and seized over 80,000 fake prints during the seizure later determined to be worth well over $200 million.