Wine collector faces federal fraud charges

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Bottles of champagne are seen on display at a Costco store December 29, 2008 in South San Francisco, California.

An Indonesian millionaire who was once known as one of the world's up-and-coming collectors and dealers of rare wines was arrested in Los Angeles on Thursday and accused of trying to bamboozle other wealthy buyers with more than $1.3 million worth of counterfeit bottles.

Rudy Kurniawan, 35, of Arcadia, Calif., was arrested in Los Angeles, where he has lived in luxury for years despite a longstanding deportation order expelling him from the country, federal prosecutors said. He is charged in New York with repeatedly trying to sell sophisticated fakes of vintages that can trade for thousands of dollars per bottle.

The criminal charges follow years of increasing suspicions about Kurniawan among top wine connoisseurs. Some of his wines were pulled from a sale in 2007 after an auction house declared them to be fakes. The billionaire yachtsman, entrepreneur and wine investor William Koch sued Kurniawan in 2009, claiming that several bott les he'd purchased from him were phony.

Federal prosecutors in New York accused Kurniawan of engaging in "multiple fraudulent schemes" related to his wine business, including trying to sell 84 bottles of counterfeit Domaine Ponsot wine at an auction in 2008, and 78 bottles of bogus Burgundy wine from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti at an auction just last February.

For that second auction, prosecutors said, Kurniawan had an associate pose as the buyer because he had already become a pariah at auction houses.

Prosecutors said Kurniawan also fraudulently obtained millions of dollars in loans to finance his playboy lifestyle.

"Mr. Kurniawan's days of wine and wealth are over," the U.S. Attorney for Manhattan, Preet Bharara, said in a statement.

One of Kurniawan's lawyers, Henry Weissmann, didn't immediately return a phone message Thursday seeking comment.

In a 2006 profile in the Los Angeles Times, Kurniawan boasted of buying nearly $35 million in wine that year, sometimes dropping $75,000 on a single case, and he talked of his own skill at sniffing out forgeries.

Investigators said in court papers that Kurniawan made some simple mistakes that led to his discovery as a counterfeiter. One of those bottles of Domaine Ponsot he attempted to sell at auction in 2008 was passed off as having been made in 1929, even though the winemaker didn't begin estate bottling until 1934. Others were billed as having been bottled at a specific vineyard between 1945 and 1971, even though Domaine Ponsot said it didn't start using that vineyard until 1982.

Prosecutors said that batch of fakes was expected to sell for $600,000 until it was withdrawn from sale amid questions about its authenticity. When Domaine Ponsot investigated, prosecutors said, Kurniawan claimed to have purchased the bottles from someone in Asia. The phone numbers he provided for this buyer, however, turned out to be fakes too. One rang to a regional Indones ian airline, the other to a shopping mall.

Other fraud charges against Kurniawan are related to a $3 million loan he received from a company that wasn't named in court papers. Prosecutors said the wine collector understated his personal debts by $11 million when he applied for the loan.

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