When a businessman in the emirate was approached to broker deals for a questionable collection of works by the likes of Picasso, he soon found himself plunged into an infamous world.
One day about a year ago, a British businessman living in Dubai was approached with a tantalizing offer. Would he be interested in taking a look at some paintings? They included works from some of the biggest names in the art world: Pablo Picasso, Cy Twombly, Camille Pissarro and others. If the paintings were legitimate, he was told, he could help sell them on the international art market.
The businessman, who calls himself DH (he asked THR not to use his real name out of concern for his personal security), had spent the past 33 years in Dubai working in asset management and finance. He isn't an art dealer by training, but he knew people in that world who could help him. "I work with the Picasso family," he says. "Marina [Picasso] has a foundation in Vietnam building orphanages, and I'm involved with the family and other people in the art world doing asset management." If the paintings checked out and he was able to find buyers, he stood to make some serious money.
DH also knew the man who had approached him with the offer — Olof Gustafsson, a 28-year old Swede with whom he'd done business in the past. A few years earlier, DH says, he and Gustafsson had helped refurbish a refinery outside Stockholm.
"Olof knew of my involvement with the Picasso family, and asked if I'd get involved in his Picassos and other stuff," DH says. "It seemed like a straightforward business transaction."
DH says he and his partner agreed to look at Gustafsson's wares. In exchange for a promised $150,000 fee, the pair would examine the artwork and, if everything checked out, help Gustafsson broker them to buyers.
Olof showed him some initial paintings, mostly Picassos which he had hand-carried into Dubai. DH also says Gustafsson told him that the paintings had once belonged to the slain Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, who was gunned down by Colombian authorities in 1993 in a scene that was later rendered into an iconic painting by Colombian artist Fernando Botero.
Rumors have swirled for years in the art world of the existence of a vast Escobar art collection. As DH was about to discover, some version of that collection appears to indeed exist. Whether or not its inventory is filled with true masterpieces or fakes or some combination of the two, however, is not yet known — and may never be. Verifying the authenticity of works by the likes of Picasso is extremely difficult in an art world constantly on the lookout for fraud. And even if the paintings are real, the association with the Escobar family would make selling the works virtually impossible — possibly even dangerous.
In 2015, the website artnet.com wrote that "Escobar was known to have used works by artists such as Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso to launder money." In 2010, a Colombian journalist, Jose Guarnizo Alvarez, described an interview with an unnamed art authenticator who recalled being summoned to Escobar's house in Medellin by the drug kingpin's wife, Tata, to review several valuable works.
"Yes, we've heard the rumor about an Escobar collection," a federal law enforcement official in Los Angeles said in an interview recently. "We've never been able to verify it."
Due to the famous painting he crafted and the fact that Escobar was known to be a fan of his work (both men were from Medellin), Botero has been questioned repeatedly over the years about his connection to the kingpin.
"Lots of people have asked him if he knew Escobar and he has said no," says the painter's granddaughter, Andrea Botero, who lives in Mexico and has written extensively about the Latin American art world.
While the idea of a Colombian drug lord with a world-class fine art collection may seem far-fetched, Andrea Botero thinks it's possible in Escobar's case. She points to the stories of large sums of drug money being dug up in and around Medellin, the seat of Escobar's cocaine empire. "It's just insane, the millions of dollars, called caletas, which were just bricks of money they'd dig out from under a pool, or in a cave or in the garden," she says. "They'd get eaten by rats because nobody wanted to claim them."
"Typically, people like Escobar or people who make their funds illegally, like to keep things in tangible assets because they're easily sellable," says an art expert based in L.A. who deals frequently with transactions on the international art market. "But unlike a raw diamond, there are a lot of records surrounding art sales and a database for stolen art. You have to be legitimate, especially at that level. If you're going to buy a Picasso of value, you're going to have to get it from an auction house or a handful of certain dealers, and those are very public."
As for a secret Escobar collection?
"Is it possible? Maybe," she says. "But how you store it is very important, especially works of this age. If you have a Pissarro from late 19th century and you stick it in a warehouse, that's not going to work. Most of these pieces are in temperature-controlled, low-light environments behind museum glass."
But most claims about huge collections are just that, she says: claims — and they're almost always fraudulent. "It's like Al Capone's [vault]. Everyone thought there'd be something there."
Collectors, auction houses and museums are constantly on the lookout for potential fraud. It's widely estimated that roughly 20 percent of the art on display around the world is likely fake. People in the business of buying and selling art are usually very careful to establish what's known as provenance — a sort of chain of title that documents a work's history and ownership through time.
"[Art is] difficult to trace because maybe between getting from a gallery to a collection, it passed through some middlemen, and sometimes those people choose not to put that into the provenance," says Botero. "The more people a painting has in its provenance, the more questions get raised. And in many parts of the world, including Colombia, it's completely unregulated."
Along with one of his colleagues in Dubai, DH began documenting what he was being shown. He took pictures of all the paintings and began assembling them into a catalog.
Pretty soon, he says, Olof had assembled a collection of more than 200 pieces. "He had progressed and started shipping in huge quantities of stuff," says DH, who had begun reaching out to auction houses and European-based authentication organizations to get the ball rolling on the continually expanding collection in Dubai.
DH went to the local Christie's office. They weren't interested. He tried Sotheby's. "The CEO said come back when you get some provenance and authentication documents," he says.
A few authentication organizations in Europe responded more positively. There were nine purported Yves Klein works in the collection, and DH had sent pictures to the artist's independent authentication arm in France, called Ruksas, which expressed some doubt about one, but urged him to send the other eight to France for further review.
Christie's declined to comment to THR and Ruksas did not reply to inquiries about the Klein collection.
"Those pieces were believed to be genuine and were due to be shipped, but haven't been sent because of problems with various people concerned who fell out with Olof," says DH. "It's just the way the art world goes; everybody is paranoid about fakes. The onus is on the seller. People don't want to get involved with stolen art or fakes. It's quite a good thing, really."
He pointed out that foundations typically take a long time to authenticate works. They want paint analysis, fingerprint analysis.
"[High-end art dealer] Wildenstein & Co. takes months to do a single piece," he says, "So if you come to them with 10 pieces, they fall over. But if you come with a hundred, they just won't believe it. There was nothing like this to come on the market."
But DH had other reasons to be nervous.
He says Olof told him that the growing collection in Dubai was just the tip of the iceberg. Back in Colombia, the Swede said, was the motherlode: some four to six thousand pieces of art "sitting in a warehouse in the Colombian jungle."
DH says he learned that Olof had brought some of the pieces to Dubai, via L.A., by himself, while others he had shipped in via FedEx, or hired couriers. "That's when it sort of started to look odd," DH says.
Gustafsson wasn't shy about his close relationship with the Escobar family. Last June, after a Mexican location scout named Carlos Portal was killed outside Mexico City while scouting for the Netflix show Narcos, Gustafsson reached out to The Hollywood Reporter on behalf of Escobar Inc., which was headed by Roberto De Jesus Escobar Gaviria, Pablo's brother and former accountant. Gaviria and Gustafsson claimed that Netflix, by using Escobar's name, was violating a trademarked name and owed the family a billion dollars.
(In a letter to Escobar Inc., lawyers for Narcos Productions Llc. — the company behind the series and its popular video game spinoff Narcos: Cartel Wars — called the claims "fraudulent.")
As for whether or not anyone at Escobar Inc., including Gaviria, had any knowledge regarding what happened to slain location scout Portal, Gustafsson would only offer: "No comment on that. But Escobar Inc. cooperates with all law enforcement."
When news of Portal's death and Gustafsson's link to Escobar Inc. made international headlines, DH decided it was time to bow out of the deal. "And this is all happening a few days before this guy gets killed in Mexico," he says. "When that happened, I just said, 'Look, this is something I don't want to be involved in.'"
DH says that's when the intimidation started: "We've been told: 'You know who you're dealing with? This is the Escobars' property.'"
When THR reached out to Gustafsson recently, he said he knew "nothing about any kind of catalog" and denied being active in any attempt to put together an art collection in Dubai, or a bid to sell it on the international market. "It's very difficult to understand what you're talking about," he said. "I haven't produced anything like this. I don't know what you're talking about. It's pretty simple." When pressed, he said that he knows and works for "a lot of powerful people" but that he was under a strict nondisclosure agreement with them and unable to discuss the nature of that relationship.
"I don't own any art at all," he added. "All I do is intellectual property and that's pretty much it. I don't own any art, I don't represent any art. Nothing."
Others have a different recollection.
"Olof called me out of the blue, a cold call and asked me if he could bring some works down for me to look at," an employee at Bonham's, one of L.A.'s premier art auction houses, tells THR. "We looked at one or two pieces together and then we discussed whether or not he had the authenticity in place for those — had they been vetted."
The employee says Gustafsson "wasn't really interested in selling the pieces." Instead, Gustafsson wanted to know "what he would need to sell them."
"I wasn't interested in anything he had, and we didn't consign anything," the employee recalls. "For a variety of reasons, we never even got close to a consignment."
However, on June 1 of last year, Gustafsson sent the employee an email, which THR has seen, in which he referenced a work by Twombly: "I am still awaiting the documents from Mr. Twombly will advise you soon as I have them, worst case scenario we will make it to the November auction!"
"Very good," the employee responded a few minutes later. "Thank you!"
The employee says that even if the artwork had been genuine, the Escobar connection would have killed a potential deal. "If a client is presenting something from somebody who was a criminal, I'm not going to want to bring that to auction, ever."
DH shared these concerns, but despite Gustafsson's connection to the Escobars, he says he still thinks the art may in fact be real. "My belief is that the collection is there," he says. "My understanding is that there have been problems with rats, and it has been in storage for many years, so it has definitely deteriorated, and if it's not moved, it could become a total loss."
Which, if true, might go some way toward explaining why the venue for this strange deal was not Paris or London — but Dubai.
"They're all here, ex-presidents from this, that and the other country, all here spending their ill-gotten money," DH says. "Go to an average nightclub and [you] get your full range of gangsters from around the world. It's duty-free, the banks are relaxed, it's an easy place to do this kind of business. You couldn't do it in Europe. The real art market is in the U.S, Europe and Asia. And people wouldn't go to South America to buy art."
DH, who has since left Dubai out of concern for his safety, can only speculate as to Gustafsson's endgame. "Maybe the collection is being re-assembled there with the intent to create some provenance for resale into the market," he says. "Maybe the target is to keep doing that until they've got all the art out. But who knows?"