Knowledgeable collectors aren't easily fooled, but the allure of big bargains make others vulnerable
The issue of fake paintings on the Internet came to light on May 9,
2000 with the purported Richard Diebenkorn — a painting that apparently
wasn't by Diebenkorn at all — and the $135,000 bid it attracted on eBay.
It was also highlighted by New York Attorney General Gerald Spitzer's
investigation and bust of convicted auctioneer and sleight-of-hand artist Jerold Schuster.
But the problem is not one of fakes. It's more about marketing tricks,
half-truths, and misrepresentations. The "Diebenkorn" was an
abstract painting with the initials R.D. on it. The seller later admitted
to fabricating details about the painting's history. In his original
description of the painting, he claimed that he'd found it at a garage
sale in Berkeley, California, not that far from where Diebenkorn painted
his abstract masterpieces, and that he knew nothing about it. To add a
personal touch to the listing, he said his wife didn't like it and
wouldn't let him keep it in the house. The seller made no mention of the
fact that he was a lawyer, that he'd sold on eBay previously, under a
different username, or that he'd arranged for friends to enter bids on the
painting to make it seem that it was a hot item and in play.
While his dodge was complicated and sophisticated, Schuster relied on
other techniques. He listed a painting as being signed by "Coy
Rose", leading the bidders to think it might be a work by the California Impressionist Guy Rose.
Schuster once found a painting that was by an art student who signed
the work with an indistinct "DK", the "D" rounded
enough so that it looked like an "O". He listed it as a work
signed "OK" and as the creation of Austrian Expressionist
Oskar Kokoschka, whose paintings routinely sell for hundreds of thousands of
dollars. The claim made a big difference to the buyer, who was hunting for
a discovery. He paid $6,101 for the painting. In each case, it was a
simple technique of "reattribution."
A favorite trick of his simply involved taking a painting with some
signs of age, adding a forged signature, and then declaring it to be an
authentic work by a known artist. Often, the style or subjects of the
paintings don't look much like the works of the actual artist. At other
times, there's a resemblance because the paintings are copies.
According to Jane Kallir, co-director of the Galerie St. Etienne in New
York, "Many, many fakes are actually innocent copies of famous works,
probably done by admiring fans. These find their way into the market
through yard sales or at flea markets, and attract buyers hoping to find a
These fakes — and indeed the majority of fakes — are of very poor
quality, says Kallir. "No one with even modest knowledge of the
artist's work is likely to be fooled. But making a great flea market find
— like winning the lottery — has become part of the American
dream," she says.
The only difference nowadays, says Kallir, is that on the Internet,
people spend thousands of dollars on these bogus things, whereas formerly they rarely spent more than a couple hundred.