Two Laguna Beach men were arrested on suspicion of selling counterfeit artwork, Laguna Beach police announced in a news release Thursday.
Vincent Lopreto, 48, and Ronald Bell, 49, allegedly sold fake artwork they claimed was created by Damien Hirst — an English-born artist who has exhibited throughout the world — to victims via eBay, according to the release.
Both men are accused of first-degree identity theft and operating a scheme to defraud, and are at Orange County Jail awaiting extradition to New York, according to the release.
Laguna Beach detectives and Manhattan, N.Y., district attorney's office investigators served three search warrants Wednesday, including to the homes of both Lopreto and Bell, co-owners of JazzArtz at 1452 S. Coast Hwy., police said.
Inside JazzArtz, detectives located additional counterfeit Hirst pieces as well as blank paper used to print the artwork, tools used in making the reproductions and fake certificates of authenticity and stamps used to show the artworks were original Hirst pieces, according to the release.
Police said it appears that most of the victims, from countries such as South Korea, Spain, Italy and Japan, bought their fake reproductions on eBay or through auction houses scattered around the United States.
The arrests culminated a long-term investigation with both agencies.
Victims said they purchased Hirst's artwork on eBay, but after investigating authorities determined the pieces to be fake, police said. Perpetrators forged the artist's signature and letters of authenticity, according to the release.
During the investigation, undercover Manhattan district attorney investigators purchased several more pieces of the fraudulent reproductions from Lopreto, an already convicted art fraud felon, police said.
Irvine police arrested Lopreto in 2008 for similar crimes related to selling Hirst artwork, the release said. He served five years in state prison for the crimes.
The latest undercover purchases by investigators were coordinated with communications between cooperating victims and Lopreto, and demonstrated that Lopreto was knowingly selling counterfeit art, police said.
Updated, 1 p.m. Oct. 4: Laguna Beach police believe Lopreto went by the alias “Vincent Gerard,” Capt. Jason Kravetz wrote in an email. The name “Vincent Gerard” appears on JazzArtz’s website, www.jazzartz.com.
Laguna Beach detectives were asked to assist in the long-distance investigation by witnessing the mailing of fraudulent artwork, conducting surveillance and issuing the search warrants.
Laguna Beach detectives are asking any local victims to contact them.
Detective Larry Bammer is assigned to the case and can be reached at email@example.com or (949) 497-0368.
Dog found, but vehicle still missing
Authorities are still looking for a Laguna Beach man's BMW that he reported stolen early Saturday evening from Catalina Street in Laguna Beach, police said Wednesday.
The 1995 black 525 model had a dog inside, but the owner found the 20-pound rat terrier at a Gardena shelter, Louise Callus wrote in an email.
The man parked his car in front of a residence in the 1200 block to visit a garage sale just after 5 p.m. Saturday, Callus said.
He left the keys in the ignition with the engine running, doors unlocked and windows down, and shopped for 10 minutes, police said.
The man walked out and noticed his car and dog were gone.
— Bryce Alderton