President Of Park Avenue Art Gallery In Manhattan Pleads Guilty To Defrauding Art Dealers And Collectors Of Millions Of Dollars Of Artwork
Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today that EZRA CHOWAIKI pled guilty today to defrauding art dealers and collectors out of millions of dollars by entering into fraudulent agreements with these dealers and collectors to buy or sell artwork through his Manhattan art gallery (the “Gallery”), and using these dealers’ and collectors’ funds and artwork for unauthorized purposes, such as to repay other dealers to whom CHOWAIKI had outstanding debts.
U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said: “As he admitted today in federal court, Ezra Chowaiki ran a multimillion-dollar fraud on art dealers and collectors around the country. In some instances, Chowaiki sold artwork, purportedly on consignment, without the owners’ authorization. In other instances, he took money from clients purportedly to purchase artwork, and kept the money but purchased no art. This Office is committed to holding the perpetrators of such fraud responsible and returning these valuable works of art to their rightful owners.”
According to the allegations contained in the Information and other documents filed in federal court, as well as statements made in public court proceedings:
Until November 2017, EZRA CHOWAIKI was the president and the minority owner of a private art gallery located on Park Avenue in New York, New York (the “Gallery”). CHOWAIKI founded the Gallery in or about 2004, and since that time, CHOWAIKI has used the Gallery to facilitate the purchase, sale, and consignment of works of fine art, as well as for the hosting of various art exhibitions featuring works of art and sculptures by well-known artists such as Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Edgar Degas, and others. CHOWAIKI lost control of the Gallery in or about November 2017 when the Gallery filed for bankruptcy and was taken over by a trustee to oversee its liquidation.
Between at least in or about 2015 and 2017, through the Gallery, CHOWAIKI engaged in a scheme to deceive other dealers and collectors of fine artwork into sending him money or valuable artwork under the false pretenses that CHOWAIKI would engage in legitimate transactions such as the purchase, sale, or consignment of these and other artworks. In truth, however, CHOWAIKI did not, and often could not, conduct the transactions as promised, and instead kept funds and artwork for himself and the Gallery, or sold or consigned them to others both in and outside the United States, without authorization. Through these fraudulent transactions, CHOWAIKI fraudulently transferred over $16 million of artwork.
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CHOWAIKI, 49, of Brooklyn, New York, pled guilty to one count of wire fraud. That offense carries a maximum prison term of 20 years. The statutory maximum penalty is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant would be determined by the judge.
CHOWAIKI is scheduled to be sentenced on September 12, 2018, at 4:00 p.m.
Mr. Berman praised the outstanding work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”). To date, the FBI has seized millions of dollars of artwork that was fraudulently transferred through CHOWAIKI’s scheme. Any person who believes he or she is a victim of this crime is encouraged to send an email to NYArtCrime@fbi.gov.
The case is being prosecuted by the Office’s Money Laundering and Asset Forfeiture Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel M. Tracer is in charge of the prosecution.