Statement from the Laguna Beach Police Department:
Yesterday morning, Laguna Beach Detectives and Investigators with the Office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. served three search warrants at locations in Laguna Beach. These warrants were the culmination of a long-term investigation into the alleged sales of counterfeit Damien Hirst pieces of art.
(Ed: Damien Hirst is an English artist, who, ironically, has been accused of copying other artists' work himself. Read more on his Wikipedia page here.)
The victims identified in the investigation claimed to have purchased pieces of Damien Hirst artwork via eBay. The pieces were later found to be fake reproductions. The artist signatures were forged as were the letters of authenticity accompanying the art.
During the investigation, undercover Manhattan District Attorney Investigators purchased several more pieces of the fraudulent reproductions from the suspect (Vincent Lopreto). These sequential, undercover purchases were coordinated with communications between cooperating victims and Lopreto, and thus demonstrated that Lopreto was knowingly selling counterfeit art. Lopreto is a partner in JazzArtz located at 1452 South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach.
Laguna Beach Detectives were asked to assist in the long distance investigation by witnessing the mailing of fraudulent artwork, conducting surveillances and authoring the search warrants.
Yesterday, the fraudulent scheme was disrupted and evidence was recovered when the three search warrants were served at JazzArtz and the two private Laguna Beach residences of JazzArtz owners Ronald Bell and Vincent Lopreto. The investigation also revealed that the counterfeit art operation was facilitated by a joint bank account held by Bell and Lopreto.
Inside JazzArtz, detectives located additional, apparently counterfeit Hirst pieces and blank paper used to print the artwork, implements used in making the reproductions along with fake certificates of authenticity and stamps purportedly used to show that the artwork were original Damien Hirst pieces.
The two suspects have been arrested and transported to Orange County Jail. New York Investigators obtained warrants in their own jurisdictions and will begin the extradition process.
While this part of the investigation has been completed, other apparent victims have been identified as residing in South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands and Japan.
It appears that most of the victims bought their fake reproductions on eBay or through auction houses scattered around the United States.
Laguna Beach Detectives are asking any local victims to come forward and report their incidents. The Laguna Beach Detective assigned to the case is Larry Bammer and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone at (949) 497-0368.
Vincent Lopreto, a 48 year old resident of Laguna Beach and Ronald Bell a 49 year old resident of Laguna Beach.
Both men are being held on New York warrants for:
- Identity theft in the first degree- PL 190.80(1)
- Operating a scheme to defraud- PL 190.65(1)(b)
Vincent Lopreto is already a convicted art fraud felon. In 2008, the Irvine Police Department arrested him for committing similar crimes also involving the sales of Damien Hirst artwork. Lopreto was sentenced to five in years in State prison for these crimes.