Actor and art collector Leonardo DiCaprio is reportedly in the process of handing over to US authorities a $3.2 million Pablo Picasso painting and a $9 million Jean-Michel Basquiat collage. The move is related to a stunning embezzlement scandal connected to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund (also known as 1MDB), founded by the country’s prime minister, Najib Razak, for the purposes of economic development, but now alleged to have been diverted to various less noble ends.
A spokesperson for DiCaprio told artnet News via email:
Last July, upon hearing of the government’s civil action against certain parties involved in the making of The Wolf of Wall Street, Mr. DiCaprio’s representatives—working under his instruction—initiated contact with the Department of Justice. This effort was to determine if there were any gifts or charitable donations originating from the parties named in the civil complaint, and to offer the return of any such gifts or donations with the aid and instruction of the government.
artnet News reached out to representatives of the Justice Department, who confirmed that DiCaprio has volunteered to return the paintings to the FBI.
On Thursday, the US Department of Justice’s anti-money-laundering division filed a 250-page complaint seeking forfeiture of $540 million in assets that it says were bought with money stolen from the 1MDB fund, and entities that it controlled. These include upwards of $100 million worth of art, a luxury yacht, and real estate. The legal proceedings were reported by the Guardian.
The film production company Red Granite, which produced the DiCaprio vehicle The Wolf of Wall Street, was co-founded by the stepson of the Malaysian prime minister Riza Aziz and supposedly received illicit financing from the 1MDB fund. Malaysian financier and art collector Jho Low, an associate of DiCaprio, also had considerable influence on the fund, and has been the subject of investigation for its misuse of money—though the government complaint repeatedly mentions that Low had “no official position.”
In one of the more striking details from the complaint, the government says that the Picasso, titled Nature morte au crâne de taureau, had been gifted to DiCaprio accompanied by a handwritten note from a friend of Low’s. It read “Dear Leonardo DiCaprio: Happy belated Birthday! This gift is for you.” The government suggests that it was from Jho Low, though there is no indication of why he would offer the actor such an expensive gift.
In the statement to artnet News, DiCaprio’s spokesperson adds:
Prior to the government’s filing of the civil pleading today, Mr. DiCaprio initiated return of these items, which were received and accepted by him for the purpose of being included in an annual charity auction to benefit his eponymous foundation. He has also returned an Oscar originally won by Marlon Brando, which was given to Mr. DiCaprio as a set gift by Red Granite to thank him for his work on The Wolf of Wall Street. Mr. DiCaprio is grateful for the support of the government in this effort, and continues to hope that justice is done in this matter.
The suggestion that the Picasso was received for charitable purposes seems to conflict with the feds’ account, in that the note pretty specifically said, “This gift is for you.”
With respect to the Basquiat, titled Redman One, the complaint says it was bought from the Helly Nahmad gallery in New York in March 2013 with funds controlled by an entity known as Tanore, also believed to have been controlled by Low. According to the complaint:
In a letter dated March 25, 2014, from Low to an art gallery in Switzerland, where the Basquiat Collage was being stored, Low instructed the gallery, ‘Please transfer the below work to the account of [DiCaprio]. I shall have no further claims on any ownership of the below-artworks and indemnify [DiCaprio] from any liability whatsoever resulting directly or indirectly from these art-work.’ The letter is signed by both LOW and DiCaprio.
The government’s complaint specifies numerous additional artworks not connected to DiCaprio that Low acquired between October 2013 and March 2014, worth $100 million in all, used to secure a 2014 loan. These include:
-an untitled painting described as Head of Madman by Basquiat, which Low acquired from Christie’s for approximately $12 million in December 2013
–Gypsophilia on Black Skirt by Alexander Calder which Low acquired from an unnamed Monaco art dealer for approximately $3.7 million in March 2014
–Accord Bleu by Yves Klein which Low acquired from the Monaco art dealer for approximately $7.6 million in March 2014
–Untitled by Calder which Low acquired from the Monaco art dealer for approximately $1.9 million in March 2014
-Concetto Spaziale by Lucio Fontana which Low acquired from Christie’s for approximately $36 million in December 2013
-Tete de femme by Pablo Picasso, which Low acquired from Sotheby’s for approximately $40 million in November 2013
–Four Multicolored Marilyns by Andy Warhol which Low acquired in October 2013 as a purported “gift”
–Brushstroke by Roy Lichtenstein, which Low acquired in 2013 as a purported “gift.”
In a related manner, the feds are also looking to seize the film rights to Dumb and Dumber To and Daddy’s Home, films that were also funded by Red Granite. As noted in the complaint, the US government’s previous efforts included seeking civil forfeiture of the assets related to The Wolf of Wall Street which was also produced by Red Granite, including “any rights to profits, royalties and distribution proceeds.”
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