Updated: Nov. 9, 5 p.m. EST
Sometime in the late hours of Nov. 6, infamous wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan left the federal prison near El Paso where he has spent the past few years. The Indonesian national, convicted in 2013 of selling millions of dollars’ worth of fake collectible wines, did not walk through the jailhouse gates into fresh air and starlight, however.
He was handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has a standing deportation order for Kurniawan, who has been in the U.S. illegally for more than a dozen years. He's currently being held at ICE's El Paso Processing Center. But for how long and where he'll go next is unclear.
"The feds are never ever forthcoming about that sort of thing," said Jerome Mooney, Kurniawan's attorney, who said he's not sure of the timing. A spokeswoman for ICE would not comment on timing. "What happens is people sort of disappear and then reappear," said Mooney. He confirmed that Kurniawan faces deportation, but did not know if he plans to fight it.
Kurniawan surfaced in rare wine circles around 2003 and quickly became a fixture at tastings and auctions, known for his passion for Burgundy and a talent for sniffing out fakes. Fellow collectors dubbed him "Dr. Conti" for his love of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Soon he was scouring cellars in America and Europe, looking for collectible wines, and selling hundreds of bottles at auctions and in private sales. In 2006, an Acker, Merrall & Condit auction of his wines raised $24.7 million, the largest total ever for a single consignor at that time.
An Indonesian of Chinese ancestry, Kurniawan had been living in Los Angeles for several years. (An immigration court ordered him to leave the country, but he appealed the case.) Kurniawan was always vague about how he was spending millions of dollars on rare wines, as well as on a Lamborghini and a wardrobe full of expensive watches. He said his family had done well in business in Asia.
But Kurniawan's image as a savvy collector was tarnished when 22 lots of rare Burgundies supposedly from Domaine Ponsot were withdrawn from a 2008 Acker auction at the request of proprietor Laurent Ponsot. As first reported by Wine Spectator, a collector with doubts on the wines' authenticity had alerted Ponsot, who traveled to New York to make sure they were withdrawn. Asked where he had found the wines, Kurniawan was evasive.
More doubts surfaced soon as other collectors questioned wines Kurniawan had sold and it was revealed that he owed millions of dollars to Acker and some of its clients. Collector Bill Koch filed a lawsuit against Kurniawan in 2009. In February 2012, wines consigned by Antonio Castanos, a Los Angeles restaurateur and wine dealer, were withdrawn from a London auction by Spectrum after collectors raised doubts about them. Castanos testified during Kurniawan's trial that he was a straw man for Dr. Conti.
A month after the Spectrum sale, FBI agents knocked on Kurniawan's door, arrested him and conducted a protective sweep of his home. They found hundreds of bottles, labels, corks, stamps and notes that looked like the raw materials for making rare wines. On Dec. 18, 2013, a federal jury pronounced Kurniawan guilty of fraud for selling counterfeit wines and defrauding a finance company, making him 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. Now he's waiting in a different jail as immigration courts decide his fate.
Since his conviction, rumors have swirled about his background, with people alleging that he is the nephew of some wealthy—and ethically challenged—businessmen in China, who may have bankrolled him. Those rumors have never been conclusively proven, however, nor did the FBI choose to indict any co-conspirators in Kurniawan's case.
But Kurniawan may find it hard to slip completely away. Koch, known for his relentlessness, 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. (Mooney declined to say if anyone is paying him to represent Kurniawan or if he is working pro bono.)
Koch has no plans to let the matter lie. "We are hoping the Department of Justice will alert us to any change in Kurniawan's status," said Brad Goldstein, a spokesman for Koch. "We are entitled as a victim of his crimes under the Victims's Rights Act."
Regardless of where Kurniawan goes, many of his fakes are undoubtedly still in the marketplace, say multiple experts on counterfeit wine.