Ezra Chowaiki. Photo: Patrick McMullen.

Art Dealer Confesses to Defrauding Collectors Out of Millions

Manhattan art dealer Ezra Chowaiki, who was accused last December of swindling wealthy art collectors and dealers out of millions by selling them stakes in artworks he didn’t own, has pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in the case. In a plea deal in a Manhattan federal court on Thursday, Chowaiki was ordered to forfeit more than twenty paintings—including those by Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, and Marc Chagall—as well as $16.6 million, which is what prosecutors say was the total cost of the artwork he illegally transferred between 2015 and 2017. Prosecutors state that they have tracked down about half of the forfeited artworks so far. While the dealer faces a possible two decades in prison, prosecutors have suggested a sentence between four and five years.

At least six dealers were subject to scam transactions. Some invested in artworks they were led to believe would be quickly resold; others left works at Chowaiki’s gallery for consignment and never saw them again, including one dealer who lost a $1.2 million painting. Chowaiki’s victims—which according to court documents include gallerist Helly Nahmad and former Warhol superstar “Baby Jane” Holzer—are based throughout the world, from Ontario and Tokyo to Pennsylvania and New York. 

After being charged last year for wire fraud and transporting stolen goods, Chowaiki was released on $100,000 bond. He is the minority owner of the Park Avenue gallery Chowaiki & Company Fine Art, which filed for bankruptcy in November 2017. Sentencing is scheduled for September 12.