Less than a week ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers escorted Rudy Kurniawan onto a commercial flight at Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport to begin the final chapter of deportation proceedings. Just over 24 hours later, and after one layover, the convicted wine counterfeiter arrived in Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, just outside Jakarta, Indonesia, according to an ICE bulletin, ending more than two decades in the United States.
What’s unclear is what the man once known in wine collecting circles as Dr. Conti will do next.
Kurniawan, 44, an Indonesian of Chinese ancestry, arrived in California in the early 1990s to study accounting. He remained for almost a decade on a student visa. In 2001, he applied to stay but was ordered to leave the country two years later. He never did.
By that time he was already a rising figure in the world of rare wines, attending tasting events where collectors shared top bottles. The personal supply of expensive wine he brought to those tastings and generously shared was supposedly funded by a sizable allowance from his family. Soon he was scouring cellars in America and Europe, looking for collectible wines and selling hundreds of bottles at auctions and in private sales. He became known for spending lavishly on collectible Burgundy and Bordeaux. He especially loved Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Kurniawan was also quietly selling wines to collectors. In 2006, he reached his pinnacle as a wine dealer when he sold $34 million worth of wine at two auctions at Acker Merrall & Condit. The second of those sales fetched $24.7 million. But 22 lots of Burgundies from Domaine Ponsot consigned to another Acker auction were identified as fakes by Laurent Ponsot, the winery’s fourth-generation proprietor. Asked where he had acquired the wines, Kurniawan was evasive. He continued selling wines, sometimes using a straw buyer, but litigious collectors were soon crying foul.
In 2012, the FBI came knocking on his door. Agents found a fake wine assembly line in Kurniawan’s Los Angeles kitchen, including phony labels of some of the world’s rarest wines, custom stamps and rare French wax used for sealing bottles. The evidence suggested Kurniawan wasn’t just trafficking in counterfeit wines, he was making them.
On Dec. 18, 2013, a federal jury pronounced Kurniawan guilty of fraud for selling counterfeit wines and defrauding a finance company, making the Indonesian the first person tried and convicted for selling fake wines in the U.S. Counting his time in jail awaiting trial, Kurniawan served nearly nine years of his sentence. On Nov. 6, 2020, the Federal Bureau of Prisons handed Kurniawan over to ICE.
Kurniawan has a wealthy family back in Indonesia. Some collectors say they are concerned that he will resume his counterfeiting activities. While some auctioneers, wineries and wine collectors are more vigilant about fraud now, there is still much that remains unknown about how counterfeiters like Kurniawan operate. There have been no additional arrests by the FBI, leading many to wonder if law enforcement has simply moved on.
One man who hasn’t is Bill Koch. The energy executive won a $3 million settlement in his lawsuit against Kurniawan, as well as a promise that Kurniawan would provide details of his sources and accomplices. He never did, and he never paid a cent, pleading bankruptcy. Dr. Conti’s story may not be over.
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