Art Buyers Beware: That Painting Might Be A Fake



Fakes in the art world are nothing new, but there has been an insurgence of unathentic pieces lately.

A new program in Italy promoted itself as the world’s first devoted exclusively to international art crime studies, an ARTnews investigation concluded there is more fake than real modern Russian art on the market. The New York Times looked into the ongoing problem of art authenticity in Vietnam. A recent lawsuit filed in Oakland County, Michigan, formally accused Park West Gallery of selling fakes to unsuspecting customers on a cruise ship last year.

Why are wealthy individuals, often extraordinarily savvy in their other financial dealings, so vulnerable when it comes to buying art? What is it about art that causes buyers to take such leaps of faith, often only to discover that simple research could have easily uncovered the deception?

Rom Brafman, who, with his brother Ori, co-wrote the groundbreaking book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, the explanation lies in the emotional pull of the actual object. Brafman explains that “when people start purchasing something, initially they approach the endeavor from a rational perspective — ‘I will make an offer I am willing to accept, and above that is just not worth it for me.’ What people don’t count on is the emotional attachment — even touching something makes you more attached to it, and that makes it harder to stick to the original approach.”

While seasoned collectors may attribute successful art swindles to the gullibility of art-market virgins, they too are vulnerable to this emotional impact. “Smart people are not immune to it,” Brafman adds. “They become enchanted.” Indeed, some of the market’s top collectors have failed at times to ask the right questions and have paid for the oversight.

When asked about impulsivity in art-buying, one anonymous collector first pointed out that “art has a price tag which does not allow that.” However, after mulling it over a moment longer, he admitted “I’ve been impulsive once or twice; I’ve made mistakes being impulsive, taking the view that the eye is the best judge of the pieces, and I did not check authenticity before buying and should have.”

In the meantime, art buyers, both the experienced and the uninitiated, must strive to overcome the emotional gratification that often blinds them to the pitfalls of their purchases.

Rebecca Mullane, a former New York State assistant attorney general, says it’s hard to determine whether conditions have improved since the art-fraud surge in the ’80s, or the conmen are merely getting savvier. Back then, scores of boiler rooms sold fake prints attributed to Dalí and other artist, and Mullane watched as one complaint after another relating to art fraud made its way to the attorney general’s office, eventually prosecuting the Convertine Gallery in 1987 in one of the infamous Dalí cases herself. In stark contrast, in subsequent decades incidents subsided drastically. She notes, however, that wealthy victims rarely make complaints, since they often sustain losses that are painful but bearable. In the Dalí cases, she says, “Nobody lost their life savings, in contrast to other types of cases, like stock manipulation, financial planner frauds, or real estate deals, where people can lose everything.” Indeed, she emphasizes that the most sophisticated frauds target wealthy individuals for this reason.

All those interviewed emphasized that, above all, a buyer must always keep eyes and ears open and learn to ask uncomfortable questions. As the great art critic John Berger wrote about looking at art, “We only see what we look at.”


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