In June of 2019, I wrote about Rudy Kurniawan, Extraordinary Forger of Fine Wine. Kurniawan’s story is told in the documentary film, Sour Grapes, and in an award-winning book, In Vino Duplicitas. In short, he was a young and charismatic wine dealer who scammed wealthy wine collectors out of millions of dollars. Last summer, I did an update to the original story, Recent News from the World of Wine Forgery. In that post, I mentioned that Kurniawan, who had been sentenced to 10-years in prison, was scheduled for release in November. Well, I’m here to report that the intrigue continues. Late in the day of November 6, 2020, Kurniawan left his Federal prison cell and entered into the hands of ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authority. Yet, despite the best efforts of a number of journalists, his current whereabouts can not be verified.
Knowing Kurniawan’s exact location is important to a lot of people. It’s believed he has the financial resources, personnel connections, and expertise needed to disappear without a trace. While many think he’s served his time and should be left alone, some of his victims are still awaiting restitution. Others are doggedly committed to seeing that Kurniawan never re-emerges to scam a new set of unwitting marks.
The most notorious wine counterfeiter in history
Born in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1976, Kurniawan came to the United States in 1998 on a student visa. By 2003, he was beginning to establish a reputation as a connoisseur and dealer of fine Burgundy wines. That same year, immigration authorities noticed that his visa had expired and directed him to return to Indonesia. Instead, Kurniawan elected to stay in the United States illegally. In 2013, when he was eventually convicted of fraud for selling counterfeit wines, his sentence specified immediate deportation upon release.
Given that Kurniawan is the most notorious wine counterfeiter in history and the first faussaire to be investigated by the FBI and sent to prison, many in the wine investment community have been closely following his story. Public records indicate that upon release, Kurniawan went into ICE custody and was housed in the El Paso, Texas Processing Center. However, journalists have not been able to determine the answers to several burning questions. How long will he be there (or is he still there)? Is he petitioning for compassionate release into the U.S.? If scheduled for deportation, what country will he be flown to?
Millions in unpaid debt
Journalists and curiosity seekers are not the only parties interested in nailing down upscale wine dearler’s whereabouts. At the time of his sentencing, Kurniawan was ordered to pay $28.4 million in restitution fees. This money was primarily slated to repay creditors who had loaned him large sums based on his jet-setter status. He also was expected to cough up $20 million in civil forfeiture to the U.S. government. According to W. Blake Gray, a reporter for Wine-Searcher News, so far the government has only been able to confiscate about $2 million worth of wine that Kurniawan was storing at a wine cellar in New York. That leaves his forfeiture balance at $18 million. It’s unclear how much, if any, of the restitution fees have been paid.
Cause for concern
Kurniawan’s propensity for trickery seems to be a family trait—at least on his mother’s side. Two of her brothers, Hendra Rahardja and Eddy Tansil, were convicted of massive fraud in Indonesia yet managed to avoid paying their debts while holding on to estimated billions. Rahardja was president of two Indonesian banks. In 1997, in the midst of a financial crisis, he liquidated them both and fled the country. At that time, the bank’s assets were valued at $1.4 billion. Two years later, he was arrested in Australia but was never extradited to Indonesia. In 2002, he was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment and ordered to pay indemnities of roughly $280 million. According to Wikipedia, however, Rahardja died in 2003. Indonesia has only recovered $3 million from Australia, but the Indonesia Attorney General believes that Rahardja squirreled away $9.3 billion in assets that remain in Hong Kong, China, the Cayman Islands, and the British Virgin Islands.
Kurniawan’s other uncle, Eddy Tansil, is an Indonesian businessman who was convicted of embezzling $420 million in 1994. Tansil was sentenced to 17 years in prison and ordered to repay hundreds of millions (USD) in restitution and forfeiture. I’m guessing that money played a part in the way his sentence was carried out since he was allowed to leave prison on the weekends to take care of business matters. In 1996, possibly with the help of corrupt authorities, he fled Indonesia and is believed to be living in China. The two countries do not have an extradition agreement.
Like that of his uncles, Kurniawan’s net worth has proved impossible to pin down. A 2018 Wall Street Journal article places the worth of his holdings at up to $550 million. However, an article in Wine-Searcher raises doubts about that figure. Not surprisingly, Kurniawan seems to have inherited the family knack for hiding money. According to Deputy US Marshall Crystal Vasquez, Christie’s auction house is storing hundreds of bottles of Kurniawan wines in London warehouses, as well as in Geneva, Switzerland. As I pointed out last summer, the provenance of many wines up for auction is often obscure and the Christie’s stash is just one of the places where Kurniawan is suspected to be hiding assets.
Man with a vendetta
If you’re familiar with Kurniawan’s story, you may recall that one of his dupes is billionaire Bill Koch. Koch is said to have spent over $20 million dollars hiring a crack team of investigators to track down the path of Kurniawan’s forgeries. Given that Koch probably paid between $2-4 million dollars for Kurniawan fake wine, it’s evident that Koch cares far less about the money he lost than he does about being tricked.
In a lawsuit filed in 2009, Koch won a $3 million settlement against Kurniawan. As part of that deal, Kurniawan agreed to provide details regarding his sources and accomplices. So far, he’s never paid a cent to Koch and hasn’t revealed anything about how he pulled off his multi-hundred-million dollar operation. Koch told Wine Spectator this month that he isn’t planning to let the matter go. His lawyers join the many others who are expecting definitive word from the Department of Justice regarding Kurniawan’s eventual status.
Now you see me
According to Wine-Searcher, ICE has been unusually evasive when asked about Kurniawan. As mentioned above, the high-class con-man is supposedly being held in a deportation center in El Paso, TX. That particular processing center has been accused of sexually assaulting its prisoners and of having an uncommonly high COVID-19 infection rate. So, perhaps they simply don’t want to talk to reporters of any kind.
For now, Kurniawan’s fate is cloaked in mystery. At his sentencing, he talked about his elderly mother, leaving some to speculate that he will file a petition to remain in the United States. Whether he stays or returns to Indonesia, it may not take long for him to completely disappear. In an upcoming book, Laurent Ponsot, one of the French Burgundy producers that Kurniawan chose to imitate, claims that he tracked down 10 different aliases that Kurniawan was using for varying purposes. He’s a slippery eel to be sure. Back then, however, Kurniawan was an unassuming bon vivant that charmed an unsuspecting target audience. Much has changed since.