The art patron Riza Aziz, step-son of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and a producer of the film The Wolf of Wall Street, has been charged with five counts of money laundering in Malaysia. The funds were allegedly misappropriated from the Malaysian government investment fund 1MDB as part of an embezzlement scandal that has ensnared numerous pricey works of art.
Last year, Riza’s production company, Red Granite Films, shelled out $60 million to the US Department of Justice to settle civil claims linked to the scandal. Riza was also a close friend of Low Taek Jho (aka Jho Low), the alleged mastermind of the fraud, who’s accused of using 1MDB funds to acquire expensive paintings, a superyacht, and real estate. Some of that property has been reclaimed by US authorities and money from ensuing sales has been returned to Malaysia.
“Riza is innocent of the charges against him,” his attorney, Matthew Schwartz of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, told artnet News. “[The] charges are a repeat of civil allegations that had previously been resolved with the US government without any admission or finding of wrongdoing, and which resulted in $60 million being given to Malaysia. It is a shame that Riza has become collateral damage in a political crusade to jail his step-father. When the actual evidence comes out, it will be clear that he has done nothing wrong.” Riza is currently released on bail of $240,000.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the entity investigating Aziz, did not immediately respond to request for comment.
In the past, Riza has been a generous patron of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 2016, he doled out $1.1 million to the museum, on top of a previous $1 million pledge. The museum did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The headaches caused to actor Leonardo DiCaprio as a result of his connections to Aziz and Jho Low, have reportedly been multi-fold. According to a 2016 story in The Hollywood Reporter, DiCaprio’s fundraising “efforts appear to have resulted in LACMA benefiting from potentially stolen money thanks to his relationship with Red Granite Pictures—the primary backer of The Wolf of Wall Street—whose principals are key figures in a $3 billion Malaysian embezzlement scandal involving public funds.” It also added that the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation “was a beneficiary of possibly stolen money.”
DiCaprio handed over $10 million worth of assets to US authorities that were believed to have been acquired with illicit funds, artnet News reported in 2017. These included a $3.2 million Pablo Picasso painting and a $9 million Jean-Michel Basquiat collage. Even more unusual, the Picasso, titled Nature morte au crâne de taureau, was gifted to DiCaprio along with a handwritten note from a friend of Low’s that read: “Dear Leonardo DiCaprio: Happy belated Birthday! This gift is for you.” The government suggested that it was from Jho Low himself, though there was no indication of why he would offer the actor such an expensive gift.
With respect to the Basquiat, titled Redman One, the complaint said it was bought from the Helly Nahmad gallery in New York in 2013 with funds from an entity known as Tanore, also believed to have been controlled by Low. In a letter from Low to an art gallery in Switzerland, where the Basquiat collage was being stored, the complaint says that Low instructed the gallery: “‘Please transfer the below work to the account of [DiCaprio]. I shall have no further claims on any ownership of the below-artworks and indemnify [DiCaprio] from any liability whatsoever resulting directly or indirectly from these art-work.’” The letter was signed by both Low and DiCaprio.
At the time, a spokesperson for the actor told artnet News: “Last July, upon hearing of the government’s civil action against certain parties involved in the making of The Wolf of Wall Street, Mr. DiCaprio’s representatives—working under his instruction—initiated contact with the Department of Justice. This effort was to determine if there were any gifts or charitable donations originating from the parties named in the civil complaint, and to offer the return of any such gifts or donations with the aid and instruction of the government.”
Jho Low is believed to be in hiding in China, where he eventually fled as news of the scandal intensified. According to a book released this past fall, titled Billion Dollar Whale, written by Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, Low was the underbidder at Christie’s New York in 2015 when Picasso‘s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (1955) sold for $179 million, at the time setting the record for the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.
Three years ago, the Justice Department released detailed documents showing how hundreds of millions of dollars were inappropriately transferred from the 1MDB fund to Low’s personal accounts or unrelated business entities and, in some cases, used to pay for tens of millions of dollars worth of art. The documents named three works in particular, a Vincent Van Gogh drawing and two Claude Monet paintings, that the government sought to seize.
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