Art Thief and Real Estate Mogul Luke Brugnara Escapes Federal Custody

Brugnara is currently at large.

Luke Brugnara. Photo courtesy of the US Marshals Service.

Living up to his “Lucky Luke” nickname, San Francisco commercial real estate investor Luke Brugnara managed to escape from federal custody last week, as he met with his lawyer ahead of his trial over the alleged aborted sales of $11 million in artwork by Willem de Kooning, Edgar Degas, George Luks, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso.

Brugnara stands accused of having arranged to buy the valuable artworks from Tennessee-based dealer Rose Ramey Long in April 2014, claiming that he was opening an art museum in San Francisco. Having no assets, however, he was allegedly unable to pay the agreed upon amount after receiving the works, and later claimed he had been given the art as a gift.

Having previously served 30 months in prison for earlier convictions for tax evasion and trout poaching, Brugnara was sent back to jail and was awaiting trial on charges of mail fraud when he escaped last week during a meeting with his lawyer.

Last Thursday, as reported by Courthouse News, Brugnara was granted a three-hour furlough by a judge, and was permitted to change into street clothes to meet in a federal building with his lawyer, Erik Babcock. Federal marshals described the furlough to ABC as “highly unusual.” They’re now hunting for the fugitive.

“Attorney Babcock must physically escort defendant from the lock-up facility directly to the attorney’s lounge when he accepts custody,” U.S. District Judge William Aslup wrote in the furlough order. “During furlough sessions in the Oakland facility, the accused must remain in sight of and within the same room as attorney Babcock at all times.”

Escaping From Custody

Nevertheless, Brugnara somehow managed to use that time to slip through the clutches of federal authorities. According to an arrest warrant issued by Alsup, Brugnara had “escaped from the federal building and is currently at large.”

In a related case, the defrauded Long also faces a lawsuit over Degas’s La Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (The little fourteen-year-old dancer) (1879–81), one of the unpaid-for artworks, which has since been lost. Authorities were reportedly able to recover four of the five crates of artworks delivered to Brugnara, but the Degas has yet to be found.

New York’s the Degas Sculpture Project and Modernism Fine Arts blame Long for not properly vetting Brugnara as a buyer. Insurance company Lloyd’s claims the statue’s disappearance is not covered under its policy.

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