James S. Biear, 49, has been charged by the FBI with felony wire and mail fraud in connection with the scheme. He allegedly stole the artwork in 2007 from his former employer, for whom he worked as a driver and had access to his homes in New York City and Vermont.
“As part of his employment responsibilities, Biear had the ability to come and go as he pleased from the victim’s two residences,” a federal complaint states.
He also faces a state charge brought by the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office over another stolen piece of art, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Warhol gave the artwork — a silkscreen mimic of a Heinz 57 case on an 8.5- by 15.5- by 10.5-inch crate — to Biear’s employer as a gift about 35 years ago. Since then, the victim — an art collector — kept the box at his home in Greenwich Village. He noticed it missing after a birthday party at the residence in April 2007, the complaint states.
Biear arranged to sell the piece through two art dealers, in Yardley, Penn., and Milltown, N.J., lying that his uncle gave him the box as a gift, the complaint states.
The Yardley dealer told investigators that Biear provided him a letter attesting that “his ownership of the box was gifted by his uncle, (he) maintains clear title to the box and has the legal right to transfer said title.”
In 2008, the dealer certified the stolen artwork through the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board. It was sold to an unnamed buyer who paid a $22,000 deposit then wired the remaining $198,000 from a bank in New York City to the broker in Milltown, the complaint states.
Biear was awaiting arraignment in Manhattan and will also be arraigned later today on the state charge, second-degree criminal possession of stolen property, in Ossining, authorities said. The state charge, a felony with a potential prison term of 15 years, involves a $65,000 ink drawing by Francis Picabia, “Jean Cocteau par Francis Picabia.”
County police recovered numerous other artwork and heirlooms owned by the Greenwich Village victim and expect to file additional charges, said Kieran O’Leary, a police spokesman.
FBI investigators in New York and Vermont investigated the case with assistance from Westchester County police.
Ossining police are investigating a report Biear made Aug. 22 about a $25,000 painting stolen from his home, said village Detective Lt. William Sullivan. It may be a false report, Sullivan said.