Category Archives: art scams

Art Fraud Case Begs Question: What Makes Art Valuable?

Today, two parallel stories of art authentication/fraud enquiry appeared in the news.  “Old Man With Beard”, thought since the 1960’s to be a skilful copy by one of Rembrandt’s students, was examined with the latest x-ray technology, revealing a hidden drawing of a Rembrandt self-portrait beneath the painting, clinching its authenticity as his work.

On the other hand, the New York Times reveals in an explosive story today that millions of dollars of paintings purported to be by Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn may be fakes.  They were brokered by Glafira Rosales, who claimed they were from the personal collection of a “close family friend” who insisted on anonymity, and sold by blue-chip galleries and art dealers, including Knoedler & Co., which abruptly closed its doors this week.

The Times article details the FBI investigation, which is fascinating.  In addition to a lack of provenance (the documented ownership trail of a work of art), the paintings were not subjected to simple pigment tests, which have now revealed that some of the paints used to create them were not yet available at the time, to the artists who supposedly created them.  Curators and dealers with sterling reputations are falling under the juggernaut of this investigation.

It is incredible to me that these fakes, which convinced the experts (who weren’t looking too hard), could have simply been done without anachronistic paints, and might still retain their “value”.  The lack of the most basic due-diligence on the part of the “experts” is stunning, and calls to question their complicity in the fraud.  How many more are out there?

Beyond all the detective work, I wonder:  If a painting looks like a Pollock or a Motherwell, and is loved and respected for its “inspiration”, is it really less of a “masterpiece” than an authentic work?  If we really can’t tell without the help of a lab, is it really that special?  I like Motherwell, Rothko and Pollock, but $17 million??

I daresay that convincingly faking a Rembrandt would be beyond the technical and artistic abilities of anyone alive.  The Rembrandts that have been called into question were produced by his students, under his tutelage, perhaps with help from his own hand.  If a painting is so easily copied, what’s all the fuss?

What do you think?

(For a fascinating investigative journalism piece on the mechanisms of art forgery, see “Three Indicted in Sale of Fake Famous-Name Prints” from the Chicago Tribune, April, 2011.)

Internet Art Scams

Have you received an email like this?

“Good day to you.

I am so excited that I came across of your work on internet search,I am interested in purchasing these creative artworks from you………………..(insert names of several of your artworks here)

Let me know their various prices.and how much discounts are you going to give?I will be happy to have these selected artworks hung in our new home in South Africa. As well,I want you to take out the shipping cost.I have been in touch with a shipping firm that will be shipping other house decoratives.

We are traveling from our Seattle home to our new apartment as soon as possible.On Paying for the artworks,I will be glad to pay you with a Money Order or Cashier`s check in US funds that can be easily cashed at your local bank,please let me know on how to proceed for the payment of the creative artworks.

I will await your advise on how to proceed.Have a wonderful day.

Take care, Vanessa Everett”

I was contacted by two of my painting students, who forwarded this email to me, to see what I thought.  I had actually received the same one myself, and I just heard from another former student and artist friend that she was so excited, because she had sold some work to a woman in Seattle.  Unfortunately, I had to burst her bubble.

This is an internet art scam.  Here’s how it works:  the purported “buyer” expresses an interest in specific works the artist has listed on her/his website.  The “buyer” contacts the artist and asks the prices.  Eventually, a “shipping agent” needs some funds advanced, so the artist is asked for credit card information, just to get things going.  Sometimes, the “buyer” even sends a cashier’s or personal check from overseas.  It can take up to two weeks to find out the check is no good, during which time many artists deposit the check (which is usually sizable) and give their credit card information to the “buyer”.

Yes, I almost fell for this once.  I know that these scams are called “Nigerian scams” because there are so many scams being generated from internet cafes in Nigeria.  Apparently, the unemployment rate there is very high, and so are the computer skills.  But, the one who contacted me said he was from Holland.  Nice, rational, friendly Holland, I thought.  I went along with it until the credit card info was asked for, and then I knew it was all a scam.  (For a very good, detailed article about how the “Nigerian” scams work, see the New Yorker, “The Perfect Mark”:

Since then, I have seen many such emails.  They tend to follow a pattern, which I will outline here:

  1. They choose several specific works by name
  2. The buyer is overseas and also in the midst of moving from one home to another (this will provide them with an excuse for not being reachable, or the art not arriving, or other nonsense)
  3. Often the spelling and syntax is off, not what you’d see from a native English speaker
  4. There is always a “shipping agent” mentioned.  I ship a lot, and I’ve never used a “shipping agent”.  Do you know anybody who ever has?
  5. If you’re an artist, chances are some of your artist-friends(whose emails can be hacked from a list-serve they’re all on) received the same letter.  Does that sound legit to you, that a collector would spontaneously contact a half-dozen artists with completely dissimilar styles and want to buy their work, all at the same time?

Once you think about it, you realize how unlikely it is that a collector, in the middle of moving his/her domicile, would suddenly be inspired to purchase art, sight unseen, from a foreign country or a great distance, in any case.  The shipping charges will often cost more than the art!

Another scammer that approached me through an email expressed interest in carrying my art in his gallery in another state.  He told me that I would need to pay a small “deposit” of a few hundred dollars to cover “costs”, and then sales would be a 90/10 split (artist/gallery). This was a red flag.  What motivation do they have to sell your work if they’re only getting 10%?  I googled his very unusual name and found that he was a convicted felon for identity fraud, with several warrants out for his arrest.

Furthermore, I contacted an Illinois artist whose name he mentioned,to see what her experience was with him.  She told me she had already given him a credit card member to cover “costs”.  I advised her to cancel it immediately.  I also phoned a gallery which was right across the street from his gallery, and she said that, indeed, she saw the work of one artist in the window since it was leased (the artist on his website), but that nobody had ever seen the gallery open.   So, this “art dealer” had a website (it was rather crummy, and had only one artist on it (the one hanging in the windows), but still, it was a website) and an actual gallery space. He also had me check out a YouTube video that showed the vibrant gallery scene on First Fridays on his street.  Later, I realized that of all the galleries shown, his wasn’t included.  Pretty elaborate scheme!  I still wonder if the artist whose work is shown in his unopened space is in on it, or if she’s a dupe, too.

These scammers prey on artists, who are so desperate to make a sale and have their work recognized, that we often overlook common sense.  Here are some rules of thumb:

  1. NEVER give your credit card info to someone who approaches you through an email or in any other way
  2. NEVER advance funds to a gallery or collector.  This is not how business is done in the art world.  Any legitimate gallery is supposed to make money for you, not have you pay for anything in advance:  that’s why they take a commission.
  3. Online galleries should be free or take a very nominal fee and no commission on any sales.  They can make money from the ads they place on your page.

So, artists:  BEWARE!  If it feels like it’s too good to be true, it probably is.  If it’s a bounty dropped from out of the blue, it’s probably a load of thieving heartache.  Sorry to rain on the parade, but this kind of trouble, you don’t need.