One of alleged fraudster Rudy Kurniawan’s expert witnesses gave some surprising testimony Thursday at a pretrial hearing: the wine seized from the Indonesian millionaire’s home after his arrest is mostly fake.
U.S. District Judge Richard Berman was persuaded that the proposed witness, Cornelius Robert Collins, was a wine expert and agreed he can testify at the trial. But the jurist was less convinced that Collins’ testimony would help Kurniawan’s case.
"His opinion seems to support the opinion of the government, which is that the wine Mr. Collins examined yesterday is in large sum, not authentic," said Berman.
Collins, who bought European wines in the 1970s for San Francisco importer and retailer Draper and Esquin and later authenticated wines for wealthy independent clients, got access on Tuesday to about 50 bottles the FBI seized from Kurniawan's home in Arcadia, California after his arrest on March 8, 2012.
When defense attorney Jerome Mooney asked Collins on the stand how many of the bottles he examined were likely fakes, Collins gave a stunning answer.
“Well, there’s a few issues I wanted to follow up investigating on, but I would say 80 percent of them are counterfeit,” Collins testified.
This admission appeared to take the steam out of assistant district attorney Jason Hernandez’s own line of questioning. At one point, the prosecutor handed Collins a seized bottle of purported 1959 Domaine Ponsot Clos Saint Denis and asked if he would recommend it to one of his clients.
“I wouldn’t recommend buying any of the bottles,” Collins said. “All the ones presented yesterday had severe issues.”
At this, Kurniawan, in a navy scrubs top and white thermal top and jeans, and looking dramatically thinner after nine months of incarceration, put his hand to his mouth and bowed his head.
Collins claimed he had never had a substantial conversation with Kurniawan, having met him just twice, and he couldn’t opine on whether the defendant had faked the wines in question. And yet he had another opinion to share that otherwise might not be presented at trial, he said.
“The overall marketplace offers ample opportunity to buy counterfeit bottles, because the kind of authentication processes that used to be applied are not being applied.”
Collins outlined at length how, in the 1970s and 1980s, he would often be paid to carefully examine a fine wine, looking for deterioration of a label, sharpness of printing, ullage (the distance between the cork and the wine), cork color, bubbles in the glass of certain vintages, and sediment along the back of the bottle and in the punt. This was all to discern whether the contents were of the stated vintage. That kind of scrutiny rarely occurs today before a collector buys a bottle of fine old wine, he said.
Hernandez challenged a suggestion from Collins that Kurniawan might not have faked the wines himself.
“Do you have a direct understanding of who he is? What he does?” Hernandez asked. “Are you aware the government has boxes upon boxes of evidence to support that this defendant has counterfeited the wine you examined?”
Collins said in response, “I did the examination as cleanly as I could.”
Hernandez pushed further: “The government has thousands of wine labels to replicate the same bottles you examined yesterday. Did you look at those?”
“I don’t know that it would change my evaluation,” Collins replied.
Mooney said after the hearing that the defense team has yet to decide whether to offer Collins’ testimony at trial.
“We expected it,” he said of Collins' revelation in court. “The issue of the case is going to be who counterfeited these wines. There were huge amounts of counterfeit wine circulating in this case. It’s a little bit of a game of musical chairs. When the music stopped, Rudy was the last one standing.”
Kurniawan, an Indonesian national, faces more than 80 years in prison if convicted of two federal counts: of mail fraud in connection with the alleged counterfeiting, and of wire fraud, related to a $3-million loan he fraudulently secured with fine art, according to the indictment. It further accuses Kurniawan of mocking up $1.3 million worth of phony wines, consigning 84 bottles to New York auction house Acker, Merrall & Condit.
On Thursday, Kurniawan was moved from a jail cell in Brooklyn to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Manhattan, right next door to the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse on Pearl Street. Mooney requested the Buddhist vegetarian get special food at his new digs and be allowed to receive new clothing to wear to his trial, as he has lost so much weight that none of his clothes fit.
Jury selection in the federal trial begins Monday.