US seizes 2,200 pieces of artwork in NJ

Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The massive trove of artwork arrived in New Jersey last year from Texas on an 18-wheeler — its contents a mystery.

After five days of inventory, the haul proved to be significant: more than 1,100 pieces of art, mostly works by some of the nation's most influential photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston.

The valuable shipment was moved again to New York, but instead of being carefully exhibited in a home in Spain as planned, it ended up in the hands of federal authorities. By the end of an investigation, authorities had seized more than 2,200 works of art appraised at nearly $16 million.

On Friday, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark announced a Feb. 22 court filing that alleges the artwork was purchased with money collected in a scheme that sold fake credits for renewable energy. The complaint seeks to force the owner to forfeit the works.

Authorities said they were seized from a warehouse in New York in July weeks after being moved from Newark and readied for shipment to Spain via Amsterdam. The works include numerous prints by Stieglitz, including one of his famous artist wife, Georgia O'Keefe, that sold for $675,000. An Edward Steichen print titled "Greta Garbo for Vanity Fair Hollywood" was purchased for $75,000.

Authorities allege the artworks' owner, Philip Rivkin, used money fraudulently funneled through his Houston-based company, Green Diesel, to buy the art. Rivkin has not been formally charged with a crime.

Kyle Sampson, a lawyer for Rivkin, said Friday he was aware the forfeiture action was filed.

"We have not received formal notice of the forfeiture action, but I am aware that a complaint has been filed," he told The Associated Press. "We've been working for some time with the EPA in an effort to resolve their concerns and any other outstanding issues there may be."

A lawyer for Green Diesel declined comment in an email message.

Rivkin was owner and CEO of Green Diesel and a company called Fuel Streamers. Authorities allege in the complaint that Rivkin and others claimed the companies produced, purchased and imported renewable fuel. But authorities say the fuel did not exist.

By federal standards, the national stock of gasoline and diesel must contain a certain percentage of renewable fuel. Authorities allege oil companies, including Shell and Exxon, have reported a total of $78 million in losses from buying fake renewables from Green Diesel.

According to the complaint, an unnamed assistant for Rivkin told authorities that Rivkin controlled all financial accounts. "Money would come in and he (Rivkin) would move it out," the assistant told authorities.

Authorities allege Rivkin used Green Diesel's bank account and other accounts to buy at least $18 million in artwork. Rivkin tended to buy his photographs in groups, making it difficult to trace individual purchases, but authorities said they have matched 1,590 pieces of art to one credit card and four bank accounts.

In April 2012, the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of violation to Green Diesel, alleging it improperly generated credits that track and boost renewable fuel production. Authorities claim Rivkin arranged to have the art shipped out the year before, after learning of the investigation.

An EPA spokesman did not return a call for comment.

According to the complaint, Rivkin's assistant said Rivkin started purchasing vintage photographs after receiving the "EPA money." Much of the artwork was shipped from Houston to Newark and eventually bound for Spain, authorities said.

The assistant traveled to Geneva and Barcelona with Rivkin, the assistant told authorities. Rivkin stayed in Spain and when the assistant returned to the U.S. noticed that Rivkin's office was cleaned out and numerous documents were shredded, authorities said.

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Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton contributed to this story.

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