Fooled , fleeced and for­got­ten in the art world

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY STEPHEN BROOKES

Steve Martin knows his art. The Hol­ly­wood star is an ex­pe­ri­enced, savvy col­lec­tor and is so fa­mil­iar with the art world that he even wrote a novel, “An Ob­ject of Beauty”, about it. So when Mr. Martin had the chance in 2004 to buy a paint­ing by the early 20th-cen­tury ex­pres­sion­ist pain­ter Hein­rich Cam­p­en­donk for the bar­gain price of about $850,000, he jumped on it.

Bad move. The paint­ing, it turns out, was a forgery, a coun­ter­feit so flaw­less that even an ex­pert hired to au­then­ti­cate it had been fooled. Mr. Martin wasn’t the only vic­tim; po­lice say the gang may have sold at least 14 forg­eries over the past decade, de­fraud­ing gal­leries and col­lec­tors of close to $50 mil­lion.

Forgery in the art world is per­va­sive. Fakes priced from a few hun­dred to sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars show up reg­u­larly at auc­tions, on web­sites and in gal­leries. Over the past 15 years, spe­cial­ists say, the ex­plo­sion of new ways to buy art on­line, par­tic­u­larly through auc­tion sites such as eBay, has brought flocks of in­ex­pe­ri­enced buy­ers into the mar­ket and made it eas­ier for coun­ter­feit­ers to find them, fool them, fleece them and for­get them.

“It’s per­va­sive,” said Alan Bam­berger, au­thor of “The Art of Buy­ing Art” and a spe­cial­ist in on­line art crime. “Twenty years ago, forg­ers op­er­ated on lo­cal or re­gional lev­els through auc­tion houses that didn’t have art spe­cial­ists on hand. But these days you can go on­line and show your master­works to the world with no prob­lem.”

Fakes make up a small per­cent­age of all avail­able art, Mr. Bam­berger said, but it’s still a concern at small auc­tions and re­tail shops and a “sub­stan­tial” prob­lem on­line. With about 1.5 mil­lion works of art at any time on eBay alone, the on­line auc­tion world is a huge and largely un­reg­u­lated place where artists, rep­utable deal­ers, pri­vate sell­ers and con artists rub shoul­ders with­out re­ally meet­ing.

Most of the art sold is gen­uine, and bona fide bar­gains can be found. Au­then­tic works of­ten go for a frac­tion of their price in bricks-and-mor­tar gal­leries, but the fan­tasy of find­ing an over­looked trea­sure, the De­gas draw­ing some­one found in the at­tic and is sell­ing for pen­nies, still draws in the un­wary, and forg­ers are ready to ex­ploit the de­mand.

“EBay is a great place to buy fake art,” says Mr. Bam­berger, who keeps files of sus­pi­cious on­line sales on his web­site, ArtBusi­ness.com. Among the ques­tion­able pieces: an al­leged Pi­casso that went for $15,000, a pur­ported Willem de Koon­ing that reached $17,500 and a wa­ter­color said to be by Pierre Bon­nard for $1,237, all priced well be­low mar­ket value, all lack­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion, and all al­most cer­tainly fake.

“The peo­ple who buy this stuff are just as much at fault” as the forg­ers, Mr. Bam­berger said. “If you’re go­ing to go on­line and beat the bushes for bar­gains, and you don’t know what you’re look­ing at, then you’re leav­ing your­self open to be­com­ing a vic­tim.”

There’s no dearth of crude, easy-to-spot fakes, but oth­ers are sur­pris­ingly so­phis­ti­cated. In 2008, Span­ish po­lice and the FBI broke up an in­ter­na­tional ring that sold, mostly on eBay, about $5 mil­lion in near-per­fect fakes of pop­u­lar artists in­clud­ing Andy Warhol and Marc Cha­gall. Other forg­ers work on a smaller scale by find­ing paint­ings in se­cond­hand shops that re­sem­ble those by fa­mous artists, then chang­ing sig­na­tures, adding an­tique frames, putting stick­ers and in­scrip­tions on the backs of can­vases, and some­times adding lay­ers of dust for au­then­tic­ity.

Al­though sell­ing forg­eries is il­le­gal and auc­tion sites have rules against it, it’s re­ally up to buy­ers to pro­tect them­selves. Mr. Bam­berger ad­vises bid­ders to get as much in­for­ma­tion from the seller as they can about the ori­gins and back­ground of a piece, and never as­sume that a piece is gen­uine just be­cause it is signed, or that they’re the only one who has spot­ted a bar­gain. Ask for de­tailed pho­tos, be sus­pi­cious about “Cer­tifi­cates of Au­then­tic­ity” (they rarely mean much), make sure you have a money-back guar­an­tee, never pay with money or­ders or wire trans­fers, and, es­pe­cially when bid­ding on high-ticket items, con­sult with an ex­pert be­fore you bid.

To avoid get­ting burned, Mr. Bam­berger says, it’s best to stick to es­tab­lished gal­leries and auc­tion houses, where you can get your money back if the piece turns out to be coun­ter­feit. If you must buy art on­line, ed­u­cate your­self first.

“If you don’t know what you’re look­ing at at auc­tion, don’t buy it,” he says. “You have to know what you’re do­ing, you have to un­der­stand art lan­guage, you have to know how to pick through a de­scrip­tion, you have to know what ques­tions to ask.”

Most of all: Don’t be too trust­ing. “A skep­ti­cal ap­proach,” Mr. Bam­berger said drily, “is very healthy.”

A forgery of Hein­rich Cam­p­en­donk’s paint­ing “Land­scape With Horses” was sold to ac­tor Steve Martin. Coun­ter­feit works are in­creas­ingly sold il­le­gally to naive col­lec­tors on web­sites such as eBay.

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