An Easton man is accused of stealing more than $100,000 worth of artwork including one by Pablo Picasso.
Charges against Joselito Vega were announced Monday by Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes and Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen M. Rice.
Vega, 42, of the 100 block of Scott Street in Easton, stole paintings from a home where he was hired to work, said the prosecutors, adding that he then used his ex-sister-in-law's identity, without her knowledge, to sell one of the paintings at an auction through Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, Calif.
It started in March 2011. Vega was working for Zimmer Painting Inc. and was assigned a job at the Schulhof Estate in Kings Point, N.Y., officials said. The Schulhof Collection is a well-known private art collection of post-war and contemporary European and American art, which includes more than 300 works of art.
About a year later, the Schulhof Estate completed an inventory of its works and realized three were missing, officials said. Gone were Le Fauteuil II (the Armchair II) by Jean DuBuffet, a French artist. The work is estimated to be worth approximately $50,000. The other missing paintings were Tuftonboro by Frank Stella and Flower by Norman Lewis.
The Kings County district attorney’s office began investigating what it called "Operation to Catch a Thief."
Prosecutors said they found the Dubuffet had been given to Clars Auction Gallery and sold for $8,500 to a buyer in Monaco on Sept. 11, 2011.
Vega had used his ex-sister-in-law's identity for the transactions with the auction gallery, official said. He then tricked his ex-sister-in-law into creating a bank account in her name so he could cash a check. Officials said he told her he did not want the money in his bank account because he worried he'd lose his social security benefits.
"The defendant tried to launder the proceeds from the stolen art in Brooklyn. Investigators were able to track down one of the works in an Oakland art gallery. It obviously raises a red flag when you are selling a $50,000 painting for less than $10,000. I want to commend our investigators for their work, and thank the Nassau County DA's office, San Francisco DA's office, Easton, Pa. Police Department and the Oakland, Calif. Police Department for their efforts in this investigation," said District Attorney Hynes.
At the end of last month, Vega was hired for another job at the Schulhof Estate. Detectives set up a sting operation to catch him stealing art, the prosecutors said. Vega, they said, was caught on camera taking three more paintings. This time, one of the pieces of art was Three Graces II, an etching by Pablo Picasso, officials said. He also allegedly stole another Jean Dubuffet work -- “Chien”. He is also accused of taking a Yaacov Agam work called “Presence de Rythmes”.
Police searched Vega's Easton home, after acquiring a search warrant. Computers and other records were seized.
"The Schulhof Estate spent decades gathering and protecting hundreds of pieces of artwork, yet where others saw incredible beauty in these paintings, Joselito Vega only saw the opportunity to make a quick buck," Rice said. "He violated the trust of his employer and a former family member and he must now face the consequences of his actions."
Vega was indicted in the Brooklyn case on charges of money laundering, identity theft and grand larceny. He faces up to 11 years in the Brooklyn case. In Nassau County, Vega faces a pair of grand larceny charges and could face up to five to 15 years in prison. The sentences could be imposed to run consecutively.
Vega was arrested by detectives from the Kings County district attorney’s office. In total, the six paintings that Vega is alleged to have stolen are worth over $100,000.