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"The Art Of Deception" - Part 1

Have you ever been in the market for a beautiful piece of artwork to adorn your walls at the home or office? Have you ever wondered if the art is an original painting by a great Italian master, or a copy from an unknown artist who gets paid to recreate the originals? Leonardo DaVinci once said “Learning never exhausts the mind”. In this, the first part of a series of articles I will begin to tell you of the types of artwork that hit the black market, or even worse, comes across your PC as an original on eBay, when in all reality, it is a fake. I will go into the realm of art theft and how a stolen original can make its way from thief to collector to auction and finally to your wall. I will give you a few pointers as to what you can do to ensure that the art you are getting is the art you paid for.

The first thing that you should remember is “Caveat emptor”, which is Latin for buyer beware. Reproductions of original art have been around as long as art itself. The process is quite simple. A young aspiring artist will try to copy a master’s original. At first it is difficult, but as his talent grows, so does the complexity of his art. The artist gets better and better and eventually finds his own path. There are some artists however, who find it better to keep copying the originals. They have found their niche. They copy a Rembrandt or a Warhol over and over until it is an exact replica of the original, yet there in lies the problem, it is only a replica. The artist, no matter how good the piece then makes a choice; sell it as a replica or sell it as the original to an unsuspecting consumer whether it is a dealer or a collector.

There have been thousands of misrepresented art pieces sold over the years with dollar amounts estimated in the billions being shelled out by unknowing consumers who didn’t bother doing their homework. For example, within recent years a Salvador Dali reproduction represented as an original sold at auction for an estimated 1.5 million. It is very unlikely that the auction house knew that the piece was a fake, yet it was so close to the original that only lab testing confirmed the forgery.

What is a consumer to do? The FBI has a few tips which I would like to pass on to you. The following is a list of simplistic things that all collectors should know.


  1. “Get a complete provenance or chain of custody on each piece to find out where the art came from originally. Was it obtained directly from an estate, for example? This information provides a way to double-check the piece’s history instead of just relying on the certificate of authenticity.
  2. “Research the dealer carefully. Check the Better Business Bureau for possible complaints. Find out if they sell only online or if they have a gallery.”
  3. “For pieces of art you already own, you can go back to the gallery and ask for provenance on your print. You can also contact artists’ foundations which will do side-by-side comparisons with originals for a fee.”
  4. “And remember, when you’re trying to find that one treasure from someone’s garage, that’s when you’re more likely to let your guard down.” 

It is difficult to determine if a piece of artwork is a forgery when you are buying on sites such as eBay, but there are still a few things to look out for. The sellers who are putting the forgeries online for internet auctions have a few traits that you can spot. They are using one sentence item descriptions to describe the art as opposed to the long descriptive ones used in the past. The descriptions could be as simple as “Oil on canvas, by so and so artist, size of painting, signed and in good condition”. The majority of these auctions are also marked as “Private”, which tells you that the bidders’ identities are hidden. You will have no idea who is bidding against you; in fact it could be the seller himself just to up the ante. This does not mean that every auction that is held online in such a way is a fake, but once again it is up to you to keep your wits about you.

Auction houses or antique shops are a different story all together. Most reputable establishments can be checked very easily these days. Due to the forgeries that have hit the streets via the auction houses, the security measurements have been increased dramatically. Artwork is commonly checked for age and authenticity by professionals before the sale of most pieces at auction. A paper trail of the artwork is also checked to verify its’ authenticity. Antique dealers, though privy to such professionals, rarely use them, but still keep true to the paper trail that follows each painting sold. It has become more difficult to sell forgeries as originals, yet a few may still be able to slip thru the cracks. Paper trails can now be duplicated on the household PC, and a professional forger can make it look as good as the real thing, but such cases are rare and usually for artwork well within the million dollar plus range.

I cannot stress enough the importance of knowing who you are buying from. Look into the dealers’ background when purchasing anything of high value. It only takes a short time to do this, but you will be very happy you did. Not only will you find out if he/she is legit, but you will now be able to begin your list of trustworthy dealers that you can come back to time and time again without worry, and begin a friendship of a lifetime.

n my next article I will go into the world of art theft, the reasons people steal it, and what could happen if it is found hanging on your wall. Remember the words caveat emptor or buyer beware.

Erik J. Ekstrom                                 >> Art of Deception - Part 2

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