What Makes a Successful Art Dealer Break Bad?

All this and a Fyre Festival connection, too

When large sums of money are involved, temptation rises.
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The world of contemporary art is, at its highest level, a milieu where the wealthy spend significant sums of money for creative works, some of which have stories as fascinating as the art itself. But whenever copious amounts of money are involved, there’s also the risk of someone’s ethical compass going awry. Two of the biggest art-world stories in recent years involved art dealers being sentenced for fraud — and there are other cases out there that might not have received the same coverage but are every bit as fascinating.

In a new article for Air Mail, Ezra Chowaiki details his own fall from grace — which led to an 18-month sentence at a federal prison. A New York Times article from 2018 featured a quote from Southern District of New York attorney Geoffrey S. Berman neatly summarizing Chowaiki’s actions: “He sold clients’ artwork without authorization, and he took clients’ money for the purchase of artwork he never purchased.”

Chowaiki compares his actions to those of the title characters in The Producers. “I sold partial shares in paintings that added up to more than 100 percent. I collateralized art that we had on consignment,” he wrote. “I sold the same painting many times over. I lied about payments and sent false wire proofs.”

He goes on to argue that fraud is commonplace in the industry — and that what makes his own case relatively unique is that he was caught. “[T]he business is so secretive, and so opaque, that even though lies and fraud are rampant, no one gets in trouble,” he writes.

He describes his fraud as a result of having “succumbed to temptation” after resisting it for 17 years. But the overall impression from his article is less about his own actions and more his accusations that the largest offenders have gotten away with it — something he points to repeatedly when discussing his time in federal prison. (Where who else but Billy McFarland make an appearance.)

His bio at the end of the article notes that Chowaiki “is writing a book on his experiences in the art world.” It’ll be interesting to see how candid he gets in there.

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