Anonymous tipsters and digital tracks have led to the arrest of Todd A. Desper of Beckley, West Virginia, on May 22 on fraud charges in connection with a scheme to sell on Craigslist paintings that had been stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.
Desper, a.k.a. “Mordokwan,” 47, was charged in federal court in Boston with wire fraud and attempted wire fraud.
According to the criminal complaint, on January 10, 2017, the FBI received a tip that The Concert by Johannes Vermeer, one of only 36 pieces by the artist and one of the artworks stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, was available on Craigslist, an Internet classified advertisement website (www.craigslist.com). The price was $50 million.
The Craigslist seller, according to the tip, instructed potential buyers to create a ProtonMail encrypted e-mail account to correspond.
On January 17, another tipster notified Anthony Amore, director of security for the Gardner museum, that an ad had been posted on the London section of Craigslist offering to sell The Concert as well as Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, the only known seascape by Rembrandt van Rijn, which was also stolen in the 1990 Gardner museum heist. The Craigs-list seller instructed users to create a ProtonMail encrypted e-mail account.
According to court papers, the second tipster contacted the “seller” by e-mail, telling him he was interested, and asked “is there something about the piece you can offer to validate it is real and your offer is as well.” The Craigslist seller, Mordokwan, replied and attached an image described as “a closeup of the arm of the woman playing the piano.”
The tipster forwarded the image to Amore, who looked at it with a conservator from the Gardner museum. Their conclusion was that it was from an oil painting and had a similar color as The Concert but was not from the Vermeer painting.
The first two tipsters weren’t the only ones. Two others contacted the Gardner museum about the offerings. (There is currently a $10 million reward offered for information leading to the recovery of the paintings.)
The FBI didn’t believe that Mordokwan actually had the paintings but decided to thoroughly investigate. “If Mordokwan did not have the paintings, it appeared that he was engaged in a multi-million dollar scheme targeting foreign buyers,” an affidavit reads. The FBI learned that Mordokwan had offered the paintings to buyers in Egypt on December 7, 2016; London on December 22, 2016; London on December 30, 2016; and Venice on January 3, 2017.
Amore created a ProtonMail account and contacted Mordokwan on January 18. The text below in italics is transcribed from the criminal complaint:
Let’s make a deal. I’m in a position to make this work and I’m ready to get down to business.
Get back to me asap.
The answer was quick.
Sounds good. Have a cashiers check made out to the name of 10tothe7th, LLC in the amount of USD $5,000,000. Mail it to 1038 N. Eisenhower Dr., Suite 151, Beckley, WV 25801, USA.
I will wait 4-6 weeks to ensure check clears.
Include where you want the painting sent.
I will conceal it behind another painting and then ship it to whatever destination you choose.
If check is fake or doesn’t not clear, that will conclude our business.
Amore pressed Mordokwan further.
Thanks for sharing this information, and this is very doable.
Just to be clear, you’re not going to send me some photograph of The Storm on the Sea of Galilee for $5m. My associates and I are expecting the painting taken from the Gardner Museum in 1990.
Painting is real.
Amore asked again.
Real from the Gardner Museum?
The one and only.
The FBI went to work. Business records revealed that 10tothe7th, LLC, the company name that Mordokwan asked the check be made out to, was an active company with only one officer, Todd Desper. The office address, according to West Virginia records, is the same address that appears on Desper’s West Virginia driver’s license.
The FBI found that Desper had used several e-mail accounts in the past: <[email protected]>, <[email protected]>, and <[email protected]>.
When agents visited the address of 10tothe7th, LLC and the home address on Desper’s license, they met his fiancée, who confirmed that Desper lived at the address. The address that the cashier’s check for $5 million was to be sent to—1038 N. Eisenhower Dr., Beckley, West Virginia—is a UPS store, where records reveale d that Desper had rented a mailbox.
Desper, when interviewed by the FBI, admitted that he operates 10tothe7th, LLC to collect money for veterans—there’s a YouTube video soliciting donations—and that “Mordokwan” is a form of martial arts he had studied for several years. The FBI Internet search could not find any references to martial arts with the word Mordokwan.
Desper’s Mordokwan e-mail account had been compromised, he told the FBI. He refused to answer when asked if he had ever used Craigslist to sell stolen paintings and claimed no knowledge of the 1990 museum theft, an affidavit revealed.
The Internet leaves a digital trail. Records obtained from Craigslist revealed two IP addresses were used to post the ads offering The Concert and Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee. One address was not available, but the other that was used by Mordokwan was traced to Desper’s home. The same IP address was used for other Craigslist ads, some using Desper’s personal e-mail address.
If Desper is convicted, the charging statute provides for a sentence of no greater than 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine up to $250,000.
Originally published in the July 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest