Painting by Mark Rothko
Creative people are more prone to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, claims a recent study. Reuters/Alessia Pierdomenico

Pei-Shen Qian, a 75-year-old painter, was charged Monday in New York, along with two Spanish brokers for running a decades-long, $33 million scam that involved selling forged paintings by world-famous artists including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

The Chinese immigrant, who formerly lived in Woodhaven, N.Y., was charged with fraud conspiracy but according to The Guardian, the painter may avoid prosecution and a 45-year jail term because he has since moved to China. The Spanish dealers -- brothers Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz, 58, and Jesus Angel Bergantinos Diaz, 65 -- were arrested and released on bail in Spain last week, and are likely awaiting extradition proceedings.

"Today's charges paint a picture of perpetual lies and greed. As alleged, the defendants tricked victims into paying more than USD 33 million for worthless paintings which they fabricated in the names of world-famous artists,” US Attorney Preet Bharara reportedly said. "The Bergantinos Diaz brothers then laundered and hid their illegal proceeds overseas. With today's Indictment, the defendants must now answer for their alleged roles as modern masters of forgery and deceit."

The scam reportedly began in the early 1990s and continued until 2009 during which time the fake paintings were sold from Knoedler & Company, a now-defunct gallery, which opened 165 years ago and was one of the oldest commercial art galleries in the U.S.

Documents from King’s Fine Arts, the business Jose allegedly created to hide his forgery operation, reportedly show that Qian was paid between $5,000 and $9,000 for each piece of famous art he copied between 2005 and 2008.

Qian told Bloomberg News in an interview in Shanghai last December that he had been the innocent victim of a “very big misunderstanding” as he had never intended to sell his paintings as the genuine works of famous painters. “I made a knife to cut fruit,” he reportedly said at the time. “But if others use it to kill, blaming me is unfair.”

Glafira Rosales, an art dealer who is also Jose’s former girlfriend, was charged in the 42-page indictment, which was unsealed on Monday. Rosales, 57, reportedly pleaded guilty last year to crimes related to selling 60 fraudulent pieces of art, and has been cooperating with investigating authorities since then.

According to the U.S. attorney, Qian claimed to investigators that he was “unfamiliar with the names” of the artists whose signatures he allegedly forged on the paintings.