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Star wine dealer goes on trial for fraud in NYC

10 december 2013, 13:35
0
©Reuters/Olivia Harris
©Reuters/Olivia Harris
Star Indonesian-born wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan went on trial in New York Monday, accused of blending ordinary wines into fake vintages in his California kitchen to sell to wealthy collectors, AFP reports.

For prosecutors it is a case of simple greed, of a man who made millions of dollars by blending wines, writing out his own formula and pretending they were from the finest French chateaux.

Before his arrest, Kurniawan became one of the world's most influential dealers of rare wines with a fleet of flashy cars, a large collection of contemporary art and Patek Philippe watches.

The 37-year-old denies the charges. He has lived illegally in the United States for 10 years and faces up to 40 years in jail if convicted at the end of the trial, expected to last two weeks.

Although Kurniawan alone is in the dock, the question of whether he had accomplices is likely to loom large over the case with the defense painting a picture of a man being made a scapegoat.

Kurniawan sat silent and still in court, wearing an impecable gray suit with a white shirt and blue striped tie and glasses. He was thin and appeared to have lost weight.

The case is being heard in a Southern District New York court in Manhattan with a 12-member jury under Judge Richard Berman.

Prosecutors say Kurniawan's taste for luxury was built on a lie.

Instead of rare vintages, Kurniawan was selling allegedly store-bought wine which had been re-bottled using either fake labels or genuine labels from empty bottles.

"This is a case about greed," said prosecutor Jason Hernandez.

"For years, Rudy Kurniawan made millions of dollars from what he claimed were very old, very special wines made by very special French wine makers," he said.

Instead, they were made in his own kitchen in the suburbs of Los Angeles, taking notes, writing formulas, old bottles filled with cheap wine and sold for thousands of dollars, Hernandez said.

He described what he called "a wine counterfeiting laboratory" in Kurniawan's house, where he blocked a kitchen window so that no one could see him.

The case involves an alleged attempt by Kurniawan to sell 97 bottles of what he said was wine from the acclaimed Domaine Ponsot winery in Burgundy, France at a 2008 auction in New York.

The sale, worth between $440,000 and $602,000, was halted at the last minute after problems with the lot became obvious.

One bottle was dated 1929 when the domaine only began bottling in 1934. The prosecution says at least 84 of the 97 bottles were counterfeit with incorrect or inconsistent labels.

Defense attorney Jerome Mooney said his client was an outsider who arrived in the United States, wanting to belong to a group of richer, older, more successful people who love fine wines.

"In the wine market, there are a lot of counterfeits and alterations," he told the court.

"This poor guy gets blame for eveything," he added. "It is just a house of cards."

Kurniawan is also accused of selling counterfeit wines at two 2006 auctions in New York which netted him $10.6 million and $24.7 million respectively, a record.

One collector is alleged to have paid $12,925 for a fake bottle of Romanee-Conti.

Prosecutors allege the FBI found a mass of incriminating evidence during a 2012 raid on his home in Arcadia, California.

Kurniawan allegedly sold fake wine alongside authentic bottles "so that his fraud would go undetected and so that he could dismiss as spoiled bottles or aberrations any bottle of wine ultimately identified as counterfeit," the indictment said.

In February 2012, Kurniawan is alleged to have tried to sell a consignment of purportedly Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue at auction in London worth $889,750.

However, skeptics alerted the auction house and the lots were withdrawn from sale. Kurniawan was arrested the following month.

He is also accused of fraudulently obtaining a $3 million loan in 2007-08 despite having $11.5 million in outstanding personal loans and having been in the United States illegally since 2003.

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