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Some cases of art fraud are so skillfully executed that it can take years, if not decades, before they finally begin to unravel. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the case of the Nevada lawyer turned New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officer Christian Conrad Claus, whose alleged scheme to defraud an insurance company with a bogus art heist claim reads like an art trade satire from its purported opening gambit.

Claus was indicted on 1 July for wire fraud, mail fraud and four related counts by the United States Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Louisiana. If convicted, he faces up to 75 years in prison and a maximum fine of $1.5m. Ironically, these grave consequences now loom over Claus because, authorities say, he orchestrated a scam that would have netted him a percentage of a co-conspirator’s $128,500 insurance claim and a modestly improved post at the NOPD.

From routine to ruse?

The alleged con, which has been reported on extensively by The Times-Picayuneof New Orleans, grew out of routine police business. Claus happened to be the officer who responded to a 25 October 2019 theft complaint from Fouad K. Zeton, a former Syrian boxer who at the time owned the Magnolia Mansion, an event space often used for local political fundraising in a city where corruption has run rampant for decades. Zeton claimed that cash, jewellery and a leather jacket had been stolen from his home in the Lakewood neighbourhood of New Orleans.

After learning that Zeton was insured, however, Claus purportedly told him that insurance carriers reimburse policyholders for the appraised value of their stolen objects—pointedly mentioning works of art as one example—rather than the purchase price. Claus was then said to volunteer that he once secured a $5,000 payout from his insurer after a thief made off with a sword he had bought for $50, all thanks to a favourable appraisal from the seller. Court filings allege that Claus told Zeton that he could orchestrate a grift along similar lines through his powers as a police officer and his “connections” to an appraiser.

Zeton’s original police report nonetheless omitted any works of art from the list of allegedly stolen property. But he called the NOPD again around a week later to file a second report with a second officer unconnected to the budding scheme. This time, Zeton said he realised that around ten paintings he owned had also gone missing.

Five days after making his second theft complaint, Zeton called the NOPD again to request that Claus come to his home to make a follow-up report about the purported stolen paintings. Court filings state that Claus’s department-issued body camera recorded this entire meeting, during which Claus and Zeton tried to act as if they were not on familiar terms for more than a half hour. As part of this effort, Claus even at one point held up a sign—still visible in the frame, it seems—reading “NOT CONRAD”, a reminder to Zeton to refrain from using the name by which Claus’s friends and colleagues typically call him.

Magnolia Mansion in New Orleans, which formerly belonged to Fouad K. Zeton

In between Claus’s two visits to Zeton’s home, prosecutors say, the two men traded numerous calls and text messages concerning how to advance the scheme. Among the matters discussed were the details surrounding the appraiser: Michael Jon Schofield, a Las Vegas resident who Claus presumably knew from his years practising law in Nevada. Court filings attest that Claus wrote Schofield a $2,000 check to produce an appraisal for Zeton that estimated 12 of the latter’s paintings were worth $2,500 to $15,000 each. Claus is said to have forwarded this appraisal to Zeton a few days before his follow-up visit so that it could be used to stand up the fraudulent police report about the missing paintings.

The crackup

It appears the plot began to unravel during the insurance claim process. An agent of Zeton’s insurer inquired as to how he had selected and paid Schofield to appraise his collection. According to prosecutors, Zeton said he could not recall. This would likely have been a less suspicious exchange if not for the fact that Schofield had previously been convicted of grand theft; he was sentenced to ten months in a California prison in 2008 for securing a $40,000 loan against a Picasso drawing, titled Le Couple, that he did not actually own.

While red flags were being raised around the insurance claim, Claus allegedly stayed in close contact with Zeton about the rest of his compensation for orchestrating the scam: help in improving Claus’s professional standing through the influence Zeton claimed to wield with a “high-ranking NOPD official”. Court filings include selected texts sent by Claus over the course of more than a year asking Zeton to aid him in securing more favourable shifts and an eventual promotion to detective. (It remains open to question whether Zeton ever acted on Claus’s requests, as well as who the “high-ranking police official” might be.)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation raided two of Zeton’s properties in 2021. There they found the entire stash of paintings he had claimed were stolen around two years earlier. Zeton was formally charged with one count of conspiring to commit wire fraud in December 2022. The indictment included a reference to an unnamed NOPD officer who had “agreed to document the purported theft in a police report in exchange for a share of the anticipated proceeds”. The NOPD reassigned Claus to desk duty that same month after learning he was under federal investigation; he resigned from the force in July 2023.

Zeton, who sold the Magnolia Mansion in early 2023 for $4.2m, pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiring to commit wire fraud in April 2023 and is presumed to have cooperated with the authorities in their case against Claus. Also expected to testify against the would-be mastermind is Schofield, who pleaded guilty in May to misprision of a felony, a legal term of art for refusing to report a crime of which one has direct knowledge.

In his signed affirmation of the case against him, Schofield acknowledges that he thought Zeton’s paintings had little value when he saw photos of them in November 2019. He later wrote in an email to Claus that the attached appraisal, which collectively valued the 12 works at $128,500, was “the best [he] can do”.

Schofield could be sentenced to up to three years in prison this August. Zeton, whose sentencing is scheduled for September, faces a maximum prison term of five years. Yet he has also fuelled speculation that the authorities’ interest in this case stems from their ongoing investigations into other New Orleans officials, including mayor LaToya Cantrell, to whom Zeton previously loaned out the Magnolia Mansion and whom he has called “a friend”. Amid the investigations into his activities in 2021, he said: “This has nothing to do with artwork.”

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