Painter accused in art theft in New York

May 6, 2013 3:14:16 PM PDT
A house painter from Easton, Pennsylvania has been indicted on charges he stole art work from an estate that he had been hired to paint.

Joselito Vega, 42, is facing charges of grand larceny, identify theft and money laundering. He is charged in both Kings County and Nassau County.

According to investigators, in March 2011, Vega was working for Zimmer Painting, Inc., and assigned to a job at the Schulhof Estate in Kings Point, New York. The Schulhof Collection is a well-known private art collection of post-war and contemporary European and American art, which includes over 300 works of art.

Approximately one year later, when the Schulhof Estate discovered three works were missing when they performed an inventory. The missing works were Le Fauteuil II (the Armchair II) by French artist, Jean DuBuffet, estimated to be worth approximately $50,000, Tuftonboro by Frank Stella and Flower by Norman Lewis.

The investigation, dubbed Operation To Catch a Thief by the Kings County District Attorney's Office, found that the Dubuffet painting was given to the Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, California to sell. It was sold at auction on September 11, 2011 for $8,500 ($7,147.50 after commission fees) to a buyer in Monaco. In selling the painting, Vega allegedly used the identity of his ex-sister-in-law without her knowledge. Throughout the interactions between the defendant and the art gallery, he used her name, and had the check for the sale of the work addressed to her and sent to a private mailbox in Bay Ridge.

Authorities said Vega asked his ex-sister-in-law to set up a bank account in her name so that she could cash the check for him, using the excuse that he receives social security benefits, and did not want to lose the benefits if the state found out that he received that sum of money.

A search warrant was executed at his home at 139 Scott Street in Easton, PA. Computers and other records were seized and are currently being reviewed.

Detectives from the Kings County District Attorney's Office set up a sting operation to catch him in the act. On April 29, Vega was hired to do another job at the estate in Kings Point, NY. Works of art were placed in the home, and hidden cameras were set up.

Authorities said Vega was caught on video taking three works, including a $10,000 Pablo Picasso etching, "Three Graces II".

Vega was arrested by Detective Investigators 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.

Vega faces up to 11 years on the charges in Kings County and five to 15 years on the charges in Nassau County if he is convicted.