Scams? Let me think about that. Scams? Wait for it… Yup, the fine art market in America has scams. I should be asking, “next question?” but Len, in his supreme kindness, asked me to submit something about scams. Can anyone say “can of worms”? (Perhaps I should say “scam of worms.”)
Over the years, I have been approached by a number of people looking to invest in art who sought to use our authentication & appraisal services to find out if they should be remorseful or not about an artwork they just purchased, especially if it was on a recent cruise ship vacation bound for fairyland.
Like the cruise, the goods they usually offer at their “auctions” or galleries are objects of pure fantasy. Common Picasso or Chagall lithographs, worth a grand or two are being sold for $20,000 – 30,000 to an unsuspecting audience of people who wish to splurge on a simple vacation. Now, if you have an extra $18,000 – 28,000 to waste in today’s economy, bravo for you; come to my office and buy some things from me. Actually, the truth is, I’ll sell you the same Picasso or Chagall lithograph for $1,500 – 2,000, and still make a livable wage in the process.
Beware of Description Fudge
To add to the pot of misery, is the age old “description fudge.” These are descriptions given by fine art sellers who have perfected a line of lingo that stays just inside the purview of legalese. But these words, in truth, are so misleading, that unless one is listening or reading the descriptions very carefully, and understands the terms being used, they are a sucker’s setup for big rip-offs.
Let me illustrate: one such typical description is “this is a Lithograph (note the capital “L”) of a Picasso Original (note the capital “O”), Signed and Numbered.” Well, that certainly sounds official, doesn’t it? But, let’s break it down:
1. “Lithograph.” It is probably true that the artwork being offered is a “lithograph,” meaning that it is a multiple image, printed from a lithographic plate. It might mean that the lithograph was done by the hand of the artist, personally drawn on a lithographic stone or plate and then the artist was involved in its printing process. The trouble is, this term also covers a huge variety of printing methods of today, from photo-reproductions (like the cover of your favorite glamor magazine) to hand-done photo-mechanical prints (done by the ubiquitous “someone” — like the high school kid down the street).
2. “of a Picasso Original.” This highly misleading but perfectly legal phrase actually means “a reproduction taken from a photograph of a Picasso original.” Of all the terms that have caused injury in the art field, this is the most common. There are, of course, original Picasso lithographs, executed by the artist’s own hands, and printed in small editions that were verified and recorded in a proper catalog raisonn. These have genuine value. None of the rest have any real significant value whatsoever.
3. “signed and numbered.” This is the icing on the cheesecake from hell. Such “certificates” (or other verbal or written descriptions) seldom say who signed it, nor do they adequately describe how many “numbers” there are. Is this the only edition? Is the numbering done serially (say from 1 – 50/50 for an edition described as a true edition of fifty)?
4. I would like to add this bonus observation: often a print is touted as being an “artist’s proof” or an “H.C.” (“hors commerce”, or that part of an edition reserved for the print’s collaborators. The French term is often translated “for the trade” or even “not for sale”). The size of the editions for “E.A.” (Epreuve d’Artiste, the French term for artist’s proof), “A.P.” or “H.C.” were originally conceived to mean a small part of a printed edition to be presented to the collaborators of the artwork or for the personal use of the artist. These were usually not more than 10% of the size of the regular edition. However, it’s amazing how many prints we see with the annotation “A.P.”, “E.A.” and “H.C.”. Certain prints we have personally examined have these notations on as many as a thousand prints. This is a serious breach of printing ethics, and highly misleading to those who think they are getting a very small and dedicated edition.
When In Doubt, Get Clarification!
In the end, it’s OK to ask a seller for clarification of any terms or phrases you don’t understand, or have suspicions about. If you can get such clarification in writing, so much the better. If buying art online, be sure to get such clarifications by letter, email or fax, where you can print and keep them with your receipts for the artworks; let the seller know you wish them “for your records.” If there is something fishy going on, the seller will think twice about completing the sale.
Reputable dealers are always happy to provide such letters and/or guarantees. It is not worth risking one’s reputation and credibility, even for a substantial sale, as dealers should expect to remain in business for a long time. And most are in the business for the love of the art anyway, not so much for the money. Money seekers are usually out of the business fairly quickly, since the art business is pretty much self-cleansing. No dealer can stay long if he is unscrupulous. That having been said, any buyer for an artwork for more than a few dollars should exercise common sense and due diligence. As in my opening scenario, the difference can be very substantial.
About the Author: Gayle is the founding owner and director of G. B. Tate & Sons Fine Art. His services include authentication and appraisal of fine art, and he has worked with federal authorities and art insurance companies to solve and prevent art fraud issues and theft in the marketplace. You are invited to visit his web site at http://www.gbtate.com.
Photo Credit: Wolfiewolf