Fate of Jazzartz to be decided

The future of Jazzartz remained uncertain after Laguna Beach police arrested the gallery's owners on suspicion of selling counterfeit artwork.

The gallery, which specializes in jazz-themed art, did not return voice messages seeking comment Monday.

The compact two-story space at 1452 S. Coast Hwy. opened this spring with a show of works by the late jazz album-cover artist David Stone Martin, who provided illustrations for Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and others. Prints of Martin's work occupied the walls alongside actual record sleeves.

A Google search shows Jazzartz's hours as noon to 9 p.m. daily. Facebook provides an address for the company on Lexington Avenue in New York, although the Jazzartz website mentions only the Laguna gallery.

That location is listed on the website for First Thursdays Art Walk, a monthly event during which galleries across the city open in the evening. President Dora Wexell said prospective entrants send an application and business license to the art walk board, and a board member subsequently visits the site to view artwork and meet the owners.

Wexell said she did not know when Jazzartz first took part in the art walk but that it had been a recent addition. She added that the board would discuss the gallery's status at its meeting Wednesday.

Jazzartz's Facebook and Twitter pages were last updated Sept. 23 with advertisements for a music and art show scheduled the following day at Catalina Jazz Club in Los Angeles. The show featured an exhibit of Martin's art and music by trumpeter Matt Von Roderick.

According to a release from the Laguna Beach Police Department on Thursday, owners Vincent Lopreto, 48, and Ronald Bell, 49, are suspected of selling fake artwork on eBay that they claimed was created by English artist Damien Hirst. They are accused of first-degree identity theft and operating a scheme to defraud, and are expected to be extradited to New York.

Bell and Lopreto appeared for a hearing Thursday morning and were remanded to sheriff’s custody, according to a court spokeswoman. Their next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 6.

Police Sgt. Louise Callus could not speak for the fate of Jazzartz and said she had not heard of any suspicions regarding the fine-art prints that the gallery has openly advertised as replicas of classic album covers.

"I don't know what will happen to the gallery," Callus said. "That becomes an issue for the property management. We have not received crime reports [in reference to] the album art covers that I am aware of."

In a story published in the Coastline Pilot and Los Angeles Times in June, Lopreto — who gave his name as Vince Gerard — said he was inspired to start Jazzartz when he searched online for prints of Martin's work and couldn't find any. He also said he was in talks to open a second gallery in Palm Springs after the positive response to the Laguna location.

"People come here from San Francisco and Los Angeles," Lopreto said. "Every weekend, there will be a couple dozen people who come to look at the stuff and make purchases. They actually make special trips. Jazz fans are loyal fans."

The Jazzartz website identifies Vince Gerard as the company's founder and creative director; Bell's name does not appear on the site. Callus confirmed Monday that Gerard is Lopreto's middle name.

Police said Lopreto was arrested in 2008 in another art fraud case involving Hirst's work, and court records show that he was sentenced to state prison.

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