CHICAGO — After separating from her husband nearly two decades ago, art lover Cathy Quainton found the glitzy auctions at Chicago’s Kass/Meridian Gallery to be intoxicating.
The tony River North gallery hosted wine and cheese parties at which buyers socialized as they pored through glossy catalogs advertising fine prints signed by artists such as Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall, each backed by a certificate of authenticity.
Gallery owner Alan Kass brimmed with insider knowledge of the murky art world and wowed clients with tales of his latest buying trips to France and Spain, said Quainton, of suburban McHenry, Ill.
“There was no reason to think something was wrong,” said Quainton, who wound up buying about 15 pieces from the gallery for more than a combined $14,000. “Now I know better.”
On Tuesday, nearly six years after federal authorities raided the gallery in on West Huron Street, Kass was sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to spend an additional six months on home confinement for selling phony artwork to hundreds of unsuspecting buyers like Quainton.
Federal prosecutors had sought about five years in prison, but U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras said he took into account Kass’ recent health problems in fashioning a more lenient sentence. Kass turns 76 on Wednesday.
“You have stained the art industry … and for that you have to pay some punishment,” said the judge, who also ordered Kass to pay $350,000 in restitution to wronged customers.
Kass and two associates, including a New York distributor still awaiting sentencing, were indicted in 2011 as part of a sweeping investigation into international art fraud that eventually ensnared a dozen defendants.
Among those charged was Northbrook, Ill., art dealer Michael Zabrin, who was convicted of a similar scheme involving a Chicago gallery in 1992 but then returned to distributing fake art after his release from prison. Zabrin cooperated with the government in the latest investigation, secretly recording conversations, including one in May 2006 in which Kass cursed a customer who sought a refund, according to court records.
“Well I guess I got to give her her money back,” a transcript of the conversation quoted Kass as telling Zabrin. ” … It hurts me like it hurts you to give money (back).”
Zabrin pleaded guilty in 2011 to scamming at least 250 people out of more than $1 million in counterfeit prints and was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Kass, who pleaded guilty to nine fraud counts in May, shuffled slowly up to the lectern in Kocoras’ courtroom Tuesday and apologized for violating the trust of his clients.
“I misled people who, like me, enjoyed art,” Kass said while reading from notes. “I disappointed my customers who put their trust in my knowledge. For this I am sincerely sorry.”
In arguing for a sentence of probation, Kass’ attorney, Mark Rotert, said only a small fraction of the art sold at Kass/Meridian was fraudulent. He said Kass, who has no other criminal background, was a successful businessman who simply “lost his bearings and good judgment somewhere along the way.”
The gallery has since closed, Rotert said.
Quainton, whose purchases from Kass included a $2,000 purported limited-edition print of Pablo Picasso’s “The Flute Player”, said she still loves fine art but will probably stick to buying pieces directly from lesser-known artists.
“It’s better to leave the masters alone,” she said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services