How a charming art dealer became a wanted fraudster

By most indications, Ezra Chowaiki ranked among New York City’s top art dealers. From 2004 to 2017, his eponymous gallery on Park Avenue showed work by artists such as ­Degas, Picasso and Calder. He dealt to wealthy collectors including former Warhol superstar “Baby” Jane Holzer. High-end dealers Helly Nahmad and Michael Black did business with him.

“He was a charming [and] likable guy,” said Thomas C. Danziger, a Manhattan attorney who has negotiated with Chowaiki on behalf of ­clients. “Lots of very reputable people dealt with him.”

But none likely anticipated that Chowaiki would emerge as a criminal who skimmed cash, sold art he did not own and neglected to pay clients for works he sold on their behalf. Pleading guilty to wire fraud, he committed some $10 million worth of art-related scams and will begin serving an 18-month prison sentence on Nov. 30.

The story of Chowaiki illustrates how an ambitious striver can get trapped by bad luck, bad decisions, bad timing and a willingness to take illicit shortcuts in order to remain solvent.

“He found himself in trouble and kept thinking he could dig his way out,” said an artist friend. “But then he got in over his head and it was too late.”

Chowaiki, 50, grew up affluent in Mexico City, where his father was an importer/exporter. After graduating, he moved to Manhattan to study film at New York University and met his future wife, Mindy Schwartz. Chowaiki’s movie ambitions were sidelined for a job working at his in-laws’ ice cream business. But that wasn’t enough for him. After studying 19th and 20th century art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in Manhattan, he shifted gears.

He appeared on the scene in the early 2000s, hanging around gallery openings and auctions, looking for a toehold.

The artist recalled a situation where they considered co-buying a work by Egon Scheile. “He studied it and studied it,” the artist said. “We looked at the picture against examples in a catalog and a book. We found one element, in one line, that was not dead on, and [he] concluded that it was a copy. Ezra was scrupulous about research.”

Chowaiki became a sort of middle-man. “He found people who needed art and matched them with people selling art,” said an industry insider. “He was very good at it.”

Around 2004, he met pharmaceutical entrepreneur David Dangoor, who ended up bankrolling the Ezra Chowaiki gallery in an apartment at 500 Park Ave. “I liked Ezra and he was very knowledgeable,” Dangoor said.

Chowaiki engendered trust by being the antithesis of the slick New York art merchant, dressing grubbily and sometimes sleeping overnight at the gallery. He and Dangoor partnered with fellow dealer Luba ­Mosionzhnik.

Running a gallery is not cheap, what with rent (Chowaiki’s was around $8,000 per month), insurance, the wining and dining of clients (according to a friend of Chowaiki’s, $10,000 a month was not unusual for him) and, of course, the buying of art. Chowaiki did not live in a personally extravagant manner. But, said the insider, “He did not know how to control his spending … his money management is terrible.”

A deal with Sotheby’s went south when a Matisse work Chowaiki represented was auctioned for less than the guaranteed minimum, leaving him to pay around $3 million to the auction house.

Ezra Chowaiki with fine art delaers Baird Ryan (left) and Michelle Tillou (right) in 2011
Ezra Chowaiki with fine art delaers Baird Ryan (left) and Michelle Tillou (right) in 2011OWEN HOFFMANN /PatrickMcMullan.c

Then Chowaiki squandered some $5 million by helping bankroll a failed lawsuit by the Greek shipping heiress Aspasia Zaimis in which she alleges she was cheated out of a museum-worthy art collection after her aunt died. Chowaiki would have had a first shot at selling the works.

Meanwhile, according to court papers, Mosionzhnik was fired from the gallery in 2008 over alleged improprieties in connection with her employment. She subsequently sued Chowaiki, Dangoor, the gallery and others for a variety of claims including breach of contract. And the defendants asserted counterclaims against Mosionzhnik.

The case was settled but it “cost the gallery $1 million in legal fees,” said Dangoor.

By 2015, Chowaiki and the gallery had debts that would eventually near $10 million, according to Dangoor.

Chowaiki had been diagnosed with diabetes. His wife, with whom he has two children, had left him.

Cracks began to show.

“We worked on deals together for more than 10 years,” said one NYC dealer. “He was always so focused. But suddenly Ezra started to seem detached and distant … something was definitely wrong.”

At first, friends and colleagues cut Chowaiki some slack when things turned suspicious. One pal received a disturbing ­e-mail from a Manhattan dealer that read, in part, “Not nice what your friend is doing — selling something that he shouldn’t.” The friend asked Chowaiki about it, but let it go when the gallerist shrugged it off.

According to court documents filed in the civil case, in at least one instance Chowaiki misrepresented the acquisition price of an art work, claiming it to be higher than it actually was, and kept the additional funds.

Collector Rick Silver, in that instance, put up $1.2 million so that Chowaiki could buy “Bouquets de giroflées” by Marc Chagall, sell it and share the profits with him, per the court documents. But the actual price paid by Chowaiki was “significantly lower,” said attorney Judd Grossman, who represents several former gallery clients in civil litigation against the art dealer. Essentially, the plaintiffs allege, “he defrauded Mr. Silver and pocketed the difference.” He then “unlawfully pledged [the Chagall] as collateral on an $800,000 loan,” Grossman said.

A pattern began to emerge as Chowaiki would borrow money or art, then use it to cover debts. “He was always in need of bridge loans,” said a lawyer with whom he was friends. “He was bright but not smooth.” Still, said the artist, pals believed “he would eventually work his way out and make things right.”

In 2016, Chowaiki was consigned to sell the painting “Ettore e Andromaca” by artist Giorgio de Chirico said to be worth $1 million. According to court papers, convicted art fraudster Ely Sakhai says he bought the work at a $500,000 valuation. But the painting’s owner, Naftali Leser, said he had no idea about the deal.

Ezra Chowaiki (right) leaves Federal Court with his lawyer after his arraignment in 2017.
Ezra Chowaiki (right) leaves Federal Court with his lawyer after his arraignment in 2017.Matthew McDermott

Additionally, Chowaiki stands accused in the civil case of giving up a painting by Max Ernst — valued at around $250,000 by Christie’s — to clear a loan, but failed to pay off the owner who consigned him to sell it.

Hitting rock bottom in 2017, Chowaiki sold a 50 percent interest in a sculpture for $900,000. He promised the investor a $100,000 profit following a resale — but Chowaiki allegedly did not own the work.

Incredibly, Chowaiki was ultimately busted because of a bookkeeping issue.

In October 2017, Dangoor was notified of billing irregularities by a gallery employee who said Chowaiki was acting “moody and edgy.”

A meeting was arranged among Chowaiki, Dangoor’s attorney Anthony Dougherty and a colleague of Dougherty — which, in a shocking turn, led to the dealer owning up to a litany of misdeeds. “He had no lawyer present and was very transparent,” Dougherty said. “He was looking to confess.”

(Chowaiki’s civil lawyer, Adam Felsenstein, said: “I think Ezra was surprised when the statements he made to the gallery’s attorney became the basis of civil and criminal cases. He thought he was helping the gallery and its customers but not forming the basis of litigation against him personally.”)

In the aftermath of the meeting, Chowaiki called at least two friends. “He said, ‘My life is s–t. I’m going to get fired from the gallery,’ ” one of them recounted. “He told me he was going to kill himself.”

Chowaiki declined to comment.

Though he has confessed in court to doing what he did, some still believe that Chowaiki did not premeditate his actions.

“Ezra is not Machiavellian,” said an investor who lost $100,000 — but isn’t suing him. “He’s a good guy who got into a jam.”

Even Dangoor, who is out $2.7 million, agrees. “Ezra pleaded to not be reported to the police,” said Dangoor. “He apologized and apologized. It was a very sad scene. But I had no choice.”

Despite it all, Chowaiki still has his boosters.

Letters from former clients sent to Manhattan US District Judge Jed S. Rakoff reportedly played a role in the gallerist getting a lenient sentence — prosecutors had recommended four to five years — and he is being sued civilly by only a fraction of those to whom he owes money.

“His likability was an asset,” Grossman admitted.