Think Twice Before Buying

More than ever, the seemingly sexy world of art crime is basking in the spotlight. In the last few months alone, 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, and 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.

While these examples illustrate the rising recognition of unscrupulous behavior by the perpetrators, they also raise a question: Why is an individual of means, often extraordinarily savvy in his or her other financial dealings, so very vulnerable when it comes to the acquisition of pieces of 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 any snags or malfeasance?

To 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.” Fortunately, we now see the advent of supercomputers to our museums to help us sort the real masterpieces from fakes.

This is especially easy to understand with art, whose emotional and aesthetic appeal is intrinsic to its value. 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. There are even scholarships available for students working towards these practices.

While most are reluctant to discuss their less-than-successful purchases, one major collector, currently on ARTnews’s annual list of top 200 collectors, spoke to ARTINFO on condition of anonymity. When asked about impulsivity in art-buying, this 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.”

Another seasoned collector, Bob Karcy, the Grammy-nominated producer and music executive who has been collecting prints and other works of art for over 40 years, says, “I go by my own personal taste and what I like, and after a certain price level I start looking at provenance, take more of an investment decision.” While he has few regrets about his purchases, Karcy muses that he may have been caught up in the moment at auction and raised his hand a few times when he should not have. He claims to have greater regrets, however, about not raising his paddle than doing so too readily. See also this post on the American Academy of Art’s Shapiro Library.

Of course, less experienced buyers are even more vulnerable to the forces at play in the promotion and sale of art. According to Noah Charney, the founding director of the organization Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, which runs the new program in Italy, there are several elements that combine to make the unsuspecting art buyer easier to exploit. Charney notes that “the art world is such a strange organism. It’s seen as an elitist club that people want to belong to.… If you’re a part of it, [you] want to play by the rules.” He adds that there’s a “long history of handshakes and gentlemen’s agreements.” Also, as Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, the FBI’s Art Theft Program manager, observes, would-be buyers “don’t want to ask the questions, because that will raise doubts about the wisdom of the purchase.”

Furthermore, Charney points to the susceptibility to wishful thinking on the part of almost every party involved in an art transaction: Everybody stands to gain if the piece is real. He observes that there is “a lot of passive, inadvertent falsifying of provenance, and with the way the law works now in most countries, it is very easy to claim good faith and due diligence and not be in any way criminally liable. It is the job of the middleman to authenticate.” Also, Chicago museums mostly rely on the judgment from external specialists to determine authenticity.

Indeed, most transactions lack disinterested — and more objective — parties. To fill this vacuum, some of Charney’s students have embarked on a project to organize an entity to serve this glaringly missing function. Should the endeavor succeed, it could help regulate an opaque art market that more often than not tends to disdain transparency and change to its status quo.

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. Phyllis Rogoff, a qualified appraiser who has worked in the art world for almost 30 years, exclaims she is “shocked at the lack of research. They want to be able to say ‘I have a piece like this.’” She finds that gallery openings are especially successful at exploiting this susceptibility and notes that “people get caught up in them — it is equivalent to auction fever.” She recalls an instance in which a client knew that Rogoff could negotiate a 20 percent price reduction on a painting he wanted, but “he was there at the opening with his wife, drinking champagne, and got caught up in it and bought it then.” The “glamour” factor, Rogoff emphasizes, is not to be underestimated.

Unfortunately, the burgeoning force of the Internet in the art market seems to have only further eroded its integrity. Rogoff muses that “the Internet has led to the demise of a large part of the art world.” When asked what buyers count on to determine authenticity when buying online, Rogoff replied, “If they are buying it cheap, they don’t care.” For his part, Charney says “never buy anything online as a blanket rule — always have an expert come look at it.” While this may seem obvious, Internet sales are now make up a substantial part of the market. Individual buyers may only feel safe gambling a few hundred dollars at a time online, but the cumulative effect is significant nonetheless.

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 artists, 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.”