State prosecutors have portrayed alleged fine wine fraudster Rudy Kurniawan as a greedy individual who funded his taste for fast cars by baiting collectors into buying 'phony knock-offs', but defence lawyers argued that their client has been unfairly victimised.
Judge Richard Berman gave both sides a chance to set out their main arguments on the first day of Kurniawan’s long-awaited trial in the US District Court, Southern District of New York.
‘This is a case about greed,’ said Jason Hernandez, for the prosecution.
Setting out the US government’s argument, he told how Kurniawan used a ‘classic bait and switch scam to gain his victims’ trust’ – often buying them dinner or expensive wines that were genuine – before attempting to sell them ‘phony knock-offs’ of famous French wines.
Jurors were told how Kurniawan, also known as Dr Conti in reference to Burgundy’s renowned Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, turned his Los Angeles home into ‘a wine counterfeiting laboratory that pumped out case after case of fake bottles that he dreamed up’.
He said that he had found a magic cellar in Europe, when really the bottles contained a carefully constructed blend of cheap French and Californian wine.
Kurniawan is officially charged with one count of mail fraud, which involves creating, selling and trying to sell counterfeit wines, and also one count of wire fraud, for allegedly lying about his circumstances to New York-based Fine Art Capital in order to secure a $3m loan.
Speaking in his defence in court, Jerome Mooney told jurors how Kurniawan had spent his whole life as an ‘outsider’, having grown up as a Chinese national in Indonesia. ‘He’s always wanted to belong’.
Thanks to his wealthy family, Kurniawan came to the US with money, whereupon his need to fit in with the right crowd combined with the discovery that he had ‘a very good palate’, the court heard.
As a result, Kurniawan himself fell victim to an endemic problem in the fine wine trade.
‘If you’re buying a lot of wine, you’re going to buy a lot of counterfeits. It’s just going to happen,’ Mooney told jurors.
‘He bought counterfeits. He sold counterfeits. Everybody else bought and sold counterfeits. But, because he’s not one of the insiders, we’re here. And he’s the one that some of these people are going to want you to believe is responsible for all of the awful, horrible things that have happened with regards to the wine market.’
The trial continues.
Written by Chris Mercer