F.B.I. Agents Nab Two Tricksters Who Stole a $2.8 Million Rembrandt

On April 24, Andrej Sarkoezi was sitting in the plush, darkly lit, wood-paneled bar of the Renaissance Hotel, overlooking an X-rated movie theater and the TKTS booth in Times Square, when he was approached by James Wynne, a special agent of the F.B.I. The agent asked Mr. Sarkoezi, a short, dusky, 47-year-old man who dresses in Versace suits, if he was also known as Andre Sar. After establishing that Mr. Sarkoezi did go by that name, the two men agreed to have a discussion in Mr. Sarkoezi’s $260-per-night hotel room. They were met there by a second F.B.I. agent and Mr. Sarkoezi’s wife, Magdalen Karway Sarkoezi, 51, a tiny, elegantly dressed strawberry blonde whom agents had spotted in the hotel earlier. Ms. Sarkoezi had already been arrested for possession of stolen art.

Inside the hotel room, Mr. Sarkoezi admitted that he and his wife had taken Portrait of an Old Man (or Head of a Man ), a 1622 oil on canvas by Rembrandt estimated to be worth about $2.8 million and Amour Tenant une Torche , an 18th-century rendition of Cupid by François Boucher, worth approximately $150,000, from a retired textile engineer and art collector who lives in North Carolina. With Mr. Sarkoezi’s cooperation, the paintings were returned to the hotel that night, where the F.B.I. took possession of them. The Sarkoezis are being held in separate Federal prisons in North Carolina, where they await trial on five counts of theft and fraud. If found guilty, they each face up to 45 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine, according to the Justice Department. An indictment was filed in U.S. District Court in Asheville, N.C., on May 4.

The Cold-Call Con

The ruse started on Oct. 26, 1997, when Mr. and Ms. Sarkoezi, who were traveling in a van they said was stocked with gold coins, made an unsolicited telephone call to Julius Szakaly, 67, who has a collection of more than 100 paintings, at his home in Hendersonville, a suburb of Asheville, N.C. The Sarkoezis, who are based in Great Neck, N.Y., according to the Justice Department, introduced themselves as Andre and Magda Sar and asked the collector if he was interested in buying two silk Oriental rugs. Mr. Szakaly invited the couple over to show the rugs.

“They were so elegant,” said Mr. Szakaly in an interview with The Observer . “She showed me a locket by Fabergé that her husband had given to her. It was inscribed ‘From Andre to Magda’. She was very neatly groomed.” Mr. Szakaly, who is from a wealthy Hungarian family, said that he was impressed by how well Mr. Sarkoezi spoke Hungarian. Mr. Sarkoezi told him that his mother was from Hungary; his father, he said, was Iranian. “He said, ‘My skin is Iranian but my heart is Hungarian.'”

As the three sat in Mr. Szakaly’s living room, Mr. Sarkoezi said he needed $17,000 right away to pay import duties on gold coins sent by his father, whom he said was a former ambassador from Iran who now deals in coins in Lugano, Switzerland. While Mr. Sarkoezi tried to pry the money from Mr. Szakaly, Ms. Sarkoezi was carrying on an agitated conversation on a cellular phone, supposedly to a man at the airport about the coins.

After Mr. Szakaly said that he didn’t want the rugs, Mr. Sarkoezi pressed him to lend them the $17,000. Mr. Sarkoezi offered to pay Mr. Szakaly $20,000 the next day for the $17,000 loan, but Mr. Szakaly did not give them the money. The couple then turned their attention to an oval painting of Cupid by Boucher perched on a gilded easel in one corner of the living room. A favorite of 18th-century French aristocrats, Boucher is one of the great French painters of the art galant movement. The collector said he was trying to help sell the painting for his Asheville dealer, William Taylor. It was at that point that Mr. Szakaly revealed to the Sarkoezis that he had a Rembrandt, which he kept in a bank vault. He told the couple that he was trying to sell the painting for $3 million.

A week later, on Nov. 2, the Sarkoezis returned with a couple who represented themselves as Hans and Mimi Ericson, wealthy German art collectors. Mr. Szakaly said he had brought the Rembrandt home to show the two couples. “They told me that they all lived in the same Fifth Avenue apartment house,” Mr. Szakaly said ruefully. “[Andre] took off his suit jacket and said, ‘Try it on. I have six of these suits.’ The label was this gentleman designer who was murdered in Miami.”

They arrived at noon and enjoyed a meal of roasted venison prepared by Mr. Szakaly. After lunch, the German couple made an offer to buy the Rembrandt for $2.85 million and the Boucher for $150,000. Ms. Sarkoezi presented Mr. Szakaly with a laminated identification card that bore the name Andre Sar, a Social Security number, a nonexistent Fifth Avenue address and a New York State dealer’s license. Mr. Szakaly signed an agreement authorizing the Sarkoezis to take the paintings for 12 days, in which time they would have the paintings authenticated and either pay for them or return them by Nov. 14.

According to the indictment, Mr. Szakaly assured the collector that he was trustworthy and that he had a lot riding on the sale: “Andrej said that if the painting deal went through, the German couple who made the offer on the paintings would loan [him] $29 million, interest free, for 10 years.”

On Nov. 7, the Sarkoezis, identifying themselves this time as Andrew and Magda Smith, brought the Boucher and the Rembrandt to Fodera Fine Art Conservation, a fine art dealer on West 30th Street. According to the indictment, they said they were the owners of the paintings and that they wanted the Rembrandt authenticated in order to sell it. On Nov. 17 and then again on March 11, the owner of Fodera sent a transparency of the Rembrandt to the Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project in Amsterdam, one of the only authenticators of Rembrandts in the world.

Mr. Szakaly said that the Sarkoezis called him every week for several months with reports of the difficulties of authenticating the Rembrandt. In December, the couple told him that they had had to send the painting itself to the foundation for authentication. On March 18, after hearing nothing for over a month and learning that the foundation did not have the Rembrandt, Mr. Szakaly reported the paintings stolen to the Henderson County sheriff’s office.

“I was suspicious, but they were so reassuring on the phone,” he said.

Unable to Unload the Goods

The Sarkoezis’ plans started to fall apart on April 1 when Fodera received a letter from the Stichting Foundation stating that the Rembrandt was owned by Mr. Szakaly. Ms. Sarkoezi then changed her story and told the people at Fodera that the painting had been obtained by her husband’s “uncle,” whom she claimed had been a friend of Mr. Szakaly. Meanwhile, the F.B.I.’s New York art theft squad began an investigation of the couple after a warrant was issued in North Carolina for their arrest on April 20. Special agent James Wynne had discussions with several art dealers and was told that the couple was staying at the Renaissance Hotel, according to an affidavit that Mr. Wynne filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan on May 4.

Last month, Mr. Szakaly began to get urgent phone calls from the couple explaining why they were still unable to pay. Ms. Sarkoezi called Mr. Szakaly to report that her husband was in jail in Germany on tax evasion charges and their assets were frozen. (Mr. Ericson, the German collector, also called, Mr. Szakaly said, to inform him that Mr. Sarkoezi was in jail in Chicago.) Then, Mr. Sarkoezi called and asked Mr. Szakaly to write a letter to the Stichting Foundation stating that Andre Sar was his nephew and that he had given him and Magda Sar the right to have the Rembrandt authenticated. He claimed to have been in jail in Chicago on tax evasion charges and that his assets were frozen. Once, said Mr. Szakaly, “he said they were moving to Chicago to help an Iranian friend kidnap his children.” They called twice more asking for the letter. Finally, on April 23, the couple called again to say that they needed $50,000 to pay the Ericsons for having the painting authenticated.

“In my gut, I knew that something was wrong when they left with the paintings” Mr. Szakaly said. “They kept saying to me, ‘Be patient. Be patient.’ I wanted to believe them.”

The April 24 bust began when Mr. Wynne and his fellow agents noticed a woman in the Renaissance Hotel who matched the description of Magda Sar from the warrant. The agents followed her to the room that was registered to Andrej Sarkoezi, asked her if her name was Magda and asked to speak to her about the paintings. The group entered the hotel room, Ms. Sarkoezi was arrested and she told the agents that her husband was in the hotel bar. Mr. Wynne found Mr. Sarkoezi in the bar, returned to the hotel room with him and place him under arrest. Both paintings were delivered to Mr. Wynne at the hotel several hours later.

Agents called Mr. Szakaly that night to tell him they had recovered the paintings and placed the couple under arrest. The F.B.I. had discovered that Mr. Sarkoezi is from Czechoslovakia and Ms. Sarkoezi is Polish. “They could make a living legally if they would just go to Hollywood and write scripts for those crazy films and soap operas,” said Mr. Szakaly. “It was just lie upon lie.” (According to an F.B.I. spokesman, the Ericsons, the German couple who offered Mr. Szakaly $3 million for the two paintings, were legitimate buyers.)

The F.B.I. had also learned that, in April, Mr. Sarkoezi telephoned a Hungarian gentleman living in Hollywood, Fla., spoke in Hungarian and attempted again to unload the Oriental rugs. Calling themselves Mr. and Mrs. Andre Sar, the couple traveled to Florida and sold two rugs to the gentleman they had met only over the phone. After the sale, they asked the man for $5,000 for import duties on other rugs that they said were held up in Fort Lauderdale. The man declined. They then unsuccessfully offered the Rembrandt and the Boucher.