Dealer of Chihuly fakes facing prison time

Dealer of Chihuly fakes facing prison time
Dale Chihuly
SEATTLE -- A Renton man who made thousands of dollars passing off generic baubles as Dale Chihuly art glass may be headed to federal prison.

Caught in April dealing Chihuly fakes online, Michael Little faces up to 15 months in custody when he is sentenced Wednesday in federal court.

Little, 35, previously admitted to cutting Chihuly's name into glass he'd purchased online and reselling the items as the Seattle artist's work. Little bilked at least two dozen people before his arrest.

According to court papers, eBay first pulled Little's postings in September 2011, after Chihuly's studio claimed the items were counterfeit. Little was still at it 18 months later when Chihuly's representatives contacted federal authorities claiming Little was again selling counterfeit glass art.

The fakes, it seems, were convincing enough for dozens of Little's customers.

Buying generic glass art online and in person, Little then etched Chihuly's signature into the pieces. He faked supporting documents and concocted stories to explain how he'd come into a surplus of glass art; Little told at least one buyer a relative bought the art after hitting the lottery.

Little also posed as an art appraiser and authenticated his own bogus pieces, as well as faking "certificates of purchase" from a reputable Seattle gallery. One buyer, who paid $35,000 for 100 pieces, was prepared to donate the works to a Gonzaga University art museum.

Arriving at Little's Renton home on April 25, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents recovered counterfeit Chihuly art, materials to etch Chihuly's signature into glass and a rubber stamp with the address for the artist's studio, among other items. Also seized was correspondence tying Little to the fraud.

All told, Little sold about $128,000 in fake art. Most of those sales - $70,000 - occurred through eBay, though Little brought in $23,000 through a Renton auction house.

Writing the court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Diggs said Little could have quit his scheme when he was initially caught by eBay more than a year before his arrest. Instead, he soldiered on and defrauded at least 25 people.

"Mr. Little had many opportunities to come clean to his customers," Diggs said in court papers, "but rather than do this he created a fake email address, posed as an art dealer, assumed a fake name … and created stories about a friend dying of cancer and her personal connection to Dale Chihuly."

Little's actions left many of his customers embarrassed and embittered.

In letters to the court, 10 described the trust Little had broken for them through the fraud. Several said Little ruined art collecting for them; one said he and his wife now have trouble believing the art they've purchased elsewhere is genuine.

"Michael Little is a masterful liar, cheat, and thief," another victim told the court. "I am so ashamed that I am not sure I can tell everyone what has happened."

Also harmed by the fraud was Chihuly's studio, which saw confidence in the authenticity of the prolific artist's work shaken.

In addition to the 15-month prison term, prosecutors have asked that Little be ordered to pay $75,400 in restitution.

Diggs noted the studio has asked that any restitution awarded to it be made after Little's other victims are paid back. The studio's request means Chihuly will be the last to be made whole if Little manages to fulfill his restitution obligations.

A statement to the court filed on Little's behalf prior to Wednesday's sentencing hearing has been sealed. The plea agreement that saw Little plead guilty to a single wire fraud count in June does not set a minimum sentence.

Diggs opined that there is little in the man's history that explains why he would turn to crime.

The skills he used to fake and sell the art could have been put to legitimate use, the prosecutor told the court.

While Little's criminal history is limited, he was convicted of misdemeanor assault and trespass after breaking into to his ex-girlfriend's home in 2008. The woman's then-boyfriend punched out Little, who said - falsely - that the other man shocked him with a stun gun.

Little is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik. He is not currently in custody.