French court jails gang for faking Picassos

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A French court jailed an artist for two years on Friday for forging masterpiece paintings by the likes of Pablo Picasso as part of a billion-dollar art scam.

The court handed custodial sentences of up to two and a half years to several of the 12 convicted, including Guy Ribes, 61, who painted copies of the masterpieces, and art dealer Pascal Robaglia, 55, branded the head of the ring.

The leaders of the scam were also ordered to pay 900,000 euros (1.16 billion dollars) in damages and interest to their victims by the court in Creteil, east of Paris. Other members received lesser sentences and fines.

The court heard that between 1997 and 2005 the gang had trafficked nearly 100 forged versions of paintings by top artists such as Picasso, Marc Chagall and Fernand Leger, posing to rich buyers as needy heirs.

Some of the 20 civil plaintiffs paid up to 300,000 euros for the works.

Ribes, who received a two-year custodial sentence plus one year suspended, told the court he had been a keen painter since childhood and had started painting fakes in 1975 "for fun" and because his own work was not selling.

"It was easier to do that than try to sell to people who understood nothing about my paintings," he said.

Ribes's lawyer Antonin Levy said he was glad the court had recognised the "high quality" of the artists's work.

The court "recognised him as an artist and not simply a forger," Levy said.

© 2010 AFP

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