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Former Doctor Is Convicted in Art Fraud Case

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former Beverly Hills ophthalmologist was convicted Tuesday of federal charges that he orchestrated the theft of two paintings from his home to collect an insurance windfall in a case that shocked the nation’s art circuit.

Steven G. Cooperman, 57, who has become notorious as a plaintiff in dozens of insurance and securities lawsuits, sat stone-faced as a judge read the verdicts.

He was free on a $1-million bond late Tuesday, but prosecutors were seeking to increase his bail to $10 million. He faces up to 183 years in prison when he is sentenced Oct. 18.

Prosecutors have frozen assets, including his Fairfield, Conn., estate, and plan to seek more than $12 million in restitution.

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Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard Robinson, who tried the case with Assistant U.S. Atty. Carl Moor in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, said he was “very gratified at the jury’s verdict. They took a close look at the evidence.”

Cooperman declined to comment. John Vandevelde, his attorney, said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the verdict, which he said his client may appeal.

Cooperman’s conviction on 18 counts, including conspiracy and wire fraud, comes more than seven years after Claude Monet’s 1882 “Customs Officer’s Cabin at Pourville” and Pablo Picasso’s 1932 “Nude Before a Mirror” vanished from his Brentwood home--a loss that yielded him a $17.5-million insurance settlement.

Detectives had been suspicious about the “theft” from the outset. Cooperman’s home showed no signs of a break-in. But police suspicions led nowhere.

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Nearly five years later, the scheme collapsed when the estranged girlfriend of an attorney who stashed the masterworks in a Cleveland storage locker reported him to authorities.

Even with the verdict, the drama surrounding the paintings is far from over, as insurance companies battle over who was to blame for the payout.

Appraisers had valued the two paintings at $2.5 million, but Cooperman was able to obtain a $12.5-million policy on them through the Huntington T. Block insurance brokerage, now owned by Aon Corp. Lloyd’s of London, one of Cooperman’s underwriters, has filed a suit against Block seeking damages for issuing the policy.

Block retorts that Lloyd’s erred by paying the claim. An attorney for Lloyd’s declined to comment.

“Aon Corp. is extremely pleased that justice has been done,” said Block’s lawyer, Shand Stephens. “We’ve been telling Lloyd’s for years that Cooperman stole his own paintings and they shouldn’t have paid the claim.”

Evidence presented at the trial showed that Cooperman, whose license was canceled by the California Medical Board amid accusations of fraud, had been in financial distress at the time of the theft, with more than $6 million in outstanding loans. Chase Manhattan Bank was pressuring him to make a payment on its $4-million loan--for which the art was collateral--and First Interstate Bank had sued him.

Cooperman’s friend, former federal prosecutor and entertainment lawyer James P. Tierney, testified that he and Cooperman devised a plan to fake the art theft to cash in on the insurance. Tierney said he sneaked into the Brentwood house and took the art while the former doctor was in New Jersey.

Later confronted by the FBI, Tierney agreed to tape-record his telephone conversations with Cooperman. On one tape, when Tierney raises the possibility of returning the art to the insurers, Cooperman said, “Sleeping dogs are best left sleeping.”

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Cooperman--who once told an insurance investigator that he so treasured the art that he had traveled to the French bluff where Monet painted the cabin--is also recorded suggesting Tierney destroy them with garden shears.

The two paintings, which sat on easels across the courtroom from Cooperman for part of the trial, are to be turned over to the insurers.

Tierney has pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting wire fraud. In exchange for his cooperation, prosecutors agreed to drop a probe into disability payments he’d received, he told the court.

“I asked for and received no financial benefit and believed no one would get hurt, financially or in any other way,” Tierney said in an interview Tuesday. “This was a terrible mistake for everyone involved. As a friend, I should’ve gotten Steve to take responsibility for the difficult financial situation he created for himself. I didn’t and will pay for that mistake for a long time.”

James J. Little, an attorney who worked with Tierney and who hid the paintings in an Ohio storage facility, has been charged in a separate case with filing a false tax return.

Little’s ex-girlfriend, Pamela Davis, who tipped police to the whereabouts of the missing paintings, is pursuing the $250,000 reward offered for their recovery.

“It’s an unfortunate tragedy, however justice was served,” Davis said, adding with a chuckle: “I’m going to Disney World.”


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