Sun, Sep 09, 2012 - Page 12 News List

Art for a steal

Sotheby’s may command big bucks for fine art, but shoppers on the Web can now find “original” works by masters on the cheap

By Patricia Cohen  /  NY Times News Service, New York

A woman looks at counterfeit painting of Rembrandt’s The First Oriental Head.

Photo: EPA

Bargain hunting online? How about an original Rembrandt for US$900 (“you can clearly tell its age by the paper,” the seller of this etching attests), or a signed piece in ink by Matisse for US$1,250. (The artist’s work is, the online seller notes, “radical and unprecedented in the history of Western art.”)

Yes, Sotheby’s can command more than US$100 million for a Picasso at auction. But shoppers on the Web can find an “original” painting by that master for a mere US$450 — less than a pair of designer shoes.

Every day works labeled “original” and “authentic” and attributed to titans of the art world are offered at closeout prices by online galleries and auction sites. And every day people buy them.

That these works are sometimes fake or misleadingly labeled is no surprise to art experts and to foundations that monitor online art sales. But fraud has saturated certain sectors of the art market, experts say.

“In every country that I visit, even Abu Dhabi, I’m approached by artists or estates who are desperate about the fake situation,” said Veronique Wiesinger, the director and senior curator of the Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation in Paris. “We counted the other day 2,005 fake Giacometti sculptures for sale” on just one Web site, she added.

Many reputable online sellers, of course, deliver precisely what they advertise. “There is a lot of buying online, and most people are satisfied,” said Alan Bamberger, an art consultant and appraiser.

Over the last few years the Internet has broadened the art market far beyond the exclusivity and opaque jargon of its moneyed enclaves and has helped turn the slogan “art for everyone” into reality. But it has also become a sort of bazaar, where shoppers of varying sophistication routinely encounter all degrees of flimflammery, from the schemes of experienced grifters to the innocent mistakes of the unwitting and naive. A recent study by statisticians at George Washington University and the University of California, Irvine, estimated that as many as 91 percent of the drawings and small sculptures sold online through eBay as the work of the artist Henry Moore were fake.

The Giacometti Foundation and the Picasso estate view the problem of bogus art sales as so acute that this year they helped found a new association, the International Union of Modern and Contemporary Masters, to promote legal protections “against the circulation of counterfeit works of art.”

Art is legitimately sold on the Internet at a wide spectrum of sites, including those run by individual artists; established galleries that have expanded online; and new galleries that represent the work of emerging artists. A by-product of so many reputable businesses’ selling art through the Web these days, experts said, is that it has become easier for those that are less reputable to pass off forgeries.

Fakes can take many forms. Most common are unauthorized reproductions that violate an artist’s copyright or trademark. Other times the reproduction has been authorized, but someone adds the artist’s signature — either forged or copied — to transform a cheap poster into an expensive “signed” limited edition.

Finally, there are out-and-out forgeries sold as the work of an artist.

Last month David Crespo, the owner of a gallery in Madison, Connecticut, was charged with selling fake Picasso drawings that he had been duped into buying on the Internet years earlier. Crespo had paid nearly US$50,000 for a supposed set of Picasso drawings from a seller known as Collectart4less, according to court papers. After discovering that they were reproductions, he sold several to unsuspecting buyers for hundreds of thousands of dollars, prosecutors say, providing false documents attesting to their authenticity and provenance. (Crespo has pleaded not guilty to the charges.)

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