November 9, 2012

Miami art swindler convicted at trial

Authorities say Jorge Alberto Gonzalez gave a Miami woman a fake painting, purportedly by Cuban painter Amelia Peláez, as collateral for a $250,000 investment.

When Jorge Alberto Gonzalez convinced a divorcée to shell out $250,000 on an investment deal, he offered as collateral a valuable painting by renown Cuban modernist Amelia Peláez.

But after three years, the investment turned out to be a scam — and the painting an outright fake.

A Miami-Dade jury this week convicted Gonzalez, 50, of first-degree grand theft after prosecutors showed he used the money not for an investment but to buy luxury cars, pay rent and fund his children’s private school education.

Investigators say Gonzalez has a history of similar scams and his conviction brought relief to a Miami-Dade’s art community that saw him as a reviled con artist.

“He’s been robbing people left and right in the arts community,” said Ramon Cernuda, owner of the Coral Gables gallery Cernuda Arte, who says Gonzalez sold him a fake piece of art years ago. “It’s good that the authorities finally intervened. We need more of that.”

The four-day trial also featured testimony of Juan A. Martinez, an art historian at Florida International University, who testified that the Peláez painting was a poorly done forgery. Gonzalez’s defense: the incident was just civil contract dispute.

In this case, the swindled woman was Maria Davila, a clerk with Miami’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Back in 2005, Gonzalez “appeared to provide her moral support” during a difficult divorce, according to an arrest warrant. After she received a sizeable divorce settlement. Gonzalez made her an enticing offer.

He claimed to have a bank account in Spain that returned 10 percent over three years. All she had to do was deposit the money in his personal bank account, he would transfer the money to Spain and return 5 percent to her.

As collateral, Gonzalez gave her a purported original painting by Peláez, a Modernist painter and Cuban icon who died in 1968. He claimed the painting was worth half-a-million dollars.

In October 2009, just before the investment period was to be over, Gonzalez called Davila to say he had “experienced extreme financial issues” with the Spanish bank. Her money would not be coming soon.

Davila, after complaining to Miami-Dade police, began asking people in Miami’s art community about the authenticity of the painting. Somehow, word got back to Gonzalez.

According to police, he called her and threatened to get her fired from her federal job.

Miami-Dade detectives, meanwhile, pulled Gonzalez’s bank records. Before Davila deposited the money, his bank account had just $2.91.

Within days Gonzalez went on a spending spree, buying himself a new truck and a Lexus for his wife, Miami-Dade prosecutor William Kostrzewski showed at trial. He also used the money to pay rent, and tuition for his kids’ private school.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beth Bloom will sentence Gonzalez on Dec. 20. He faces up to 30 years in prison.

Gonzalez is no stranger to the law. In the mid-1990s, he was convicted in federal court of cocaine dealing and credit card fraud.

He is still awaiting trial after he was arrested in October 2011 for first-degree grand theft. Detectives say Gonzalez, while pretending to sell a used car, drove off with $10,000 cash belonging to prospective buyer.

In another case still awaiting trial, Gonzalez is accused of swindling a man out of a $10,000 Rolex, plus $7,000 cash to be spent for a piece of artwork.

In December 2009, Gonzalez was arrested after police said he stole from art dealer Gustavo Nuñez of 10 expensive paintings — including an original Peláez, “Jarron de Helechos,” worth at least $200,000, according to a police report.

Gonzalez claimed he was buying the art for nearly $1 million. But after the pieces were loaded into a SUV, Gonzalez drove off, flashing a gun at Nuñez, according to a police report.

However, the prosecution’s case fell apart over lack of evidence. Charges were dropped, records show.

Nunez is fighting in court for the return of four of the stolen paintings still being held by Miami-Dade police, according to lawyer Rogelio Del Pino. One of those includes “Central Triunfo En Limonar,” by Esteban Chartrand, appraised at $90,000.

“He is a con artist,” Del Pino said of Gonzalez. “Gustavo’s entire art portfolio is gone. He was left with nothing.”

In September 2010, Gonzalez was also charged with armed robbery after police said he drove the getaway truck in the mugging of an elderly man. He was convicted of accessory after the fact.

His cohort was Joelis Jardines, who in an unrelated case, was arrested after a Miami-Dade police dog alerted to marijuana outside his house. The issue of using marijuana-sniffing police dogs in Jardines’ case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court last month.

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