LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
It's easy to buy fake Coach handbags online and fake Tiffany bracelets. Now online fakery has entered the realm of high art. In March, the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago indicted an international ring of art dealers. They were charged with producing and selling counterfeit prints by such artists such as Chagall, Miro and Picasso.
The conspirators allegedly cleared a total of $5 million, and the U.S. attorney's office said they did it primarily through eBay.
Mr. JACK CHRISTIN, JR. (Senior Lawyer, Fraud Investigation Team, eBay): Back in March 2005 one of our fraud investigators received an email about one of the accounts involved in the scheme. He reviewed it and deemed it to be suspicious and actually reached out to the FBI in Chicago. And that's what started this entire investigation.
HANSEN: That's Jack Christin, Jr. He's a senior lawyer with eBay's in-house fraud investigation team.
Federal officials say fraudulent art sales over the Internet are booming. Chris Calarco is a supervisory special agent with the FBI's Los Angeles division.
Mr. CHRIS CALARCO (Supervisory Special Agent, FBI, Los Angeles): All of us have seen a dramatic increase in art fraud and then, obviously, the use of the Internet in order to commit the fraud is definitely a very, very big problem.
HANSEN: The FBI established its art crime team in 2004. Calarco coordinates the team's operations for the western part of the country. But he's in touch with investigators from all over the world.
Mr. CALARCO: I was at an Interpol experts group meeting in Lyon, France a couple years ago and I was meeting with some people from the United Kingdom and investigators from France and from Italy. And we were talking about kind of the trends that we're seeing in the art crime world, and everyone said, you know, that they were seeing complaints coming in on art fraud up 100, 200, 300 percent over the last year, and that was two years ago.
HANSEN: Nowadays, Calarco said, just about every day he gets a call from an online art buyer claiming to have been scammed.
EBay isn't the only place online where you can get fooled into buying fake art. Shady dealers operate their own sites; even Costco unknowingly has sold a fake Picasso online. But eBay remains a favorite venue for art fraud schemes.
EBay's Jack Christin says the percentage of fraudulent sales on his company's site is very small. He says eBay is committed to rooting out fraud artists and banning them from its site.
Mr. CHRISTIN: eBay is all about trust, and our members need to trust each other to buy and sell on the site, but they also need to trust eBay. We absolutely have a responsibility to make sure that sellers of art on eBay are accurate and truthful and not selling fake products.
HANSEN: Christin says eBay has 110 million items offered for sale around the world at any one time. And with so much stuff for sale, eBay's strategy for catching art scams relies on its users to police the site. It's the online equivalent of a neighborhood watch.
The FBI's Chris Calarco warns that whether on eBay or other site, it's important for buyers to verify a seller's identity.
Mr. CALARCO: Before they spend a couple thousand dollars on a piece of art, they need to make sure that they know who they're buying from. You know, I'm very suspect sometimes of these private auctions that occur where you don't know who else is bidding. If you don't know who you're buying from, if they don't have a way to be contacted, that's a red flag.
HANSEN: Bill DeLind runs the old-fashioned kind of art gallery. The DeLind Gallery of Fine Art occupies a storefront on East Mason Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. DeLind says he's been in business 39 years. Lately he's seen the results of online art fraud up close and personal.
Mr. BILL DELIND (Owner, The DeLind Gallery of Fine Art): You have to know what you're doing if you're going to try to buy online. There are so many people out there trying to fool you.
HANSEN: And so it's easy to get fooled if you don't know what you're doing.
Mr. DELIND: I've been fooled myself.
HANSEN: Tell me about that. How did you end up with a fraudulent piece?
Mr. DELIND: First you have to understand that eBay themselves is not a big store. It's really tens of thousands of people who have something they want to sell, and yes, there are a few people out frankly to defraud. Where I was fooled was not really reading carefully the description. You almost have to have a lawyer leaning over your shoulder advising you.
And somewhere the word print was thrown into the middle of a long sentence describing this wonderful aquatint by the artist Manuel Robbe, which was a nice turn-of-the-century French artist that I was very familiar with and the price was perhaps too good. And when it arrived it turned out to be a reproduction.
HANSEN: Yeah. So it'd be something you could normally get, say, at a poster store or something like that.
Mr. DELIND: You could say something like that, although this was intentionally created to fool because it was done exactly in the same size as the original. You just plain have to know what you're doing.
HANSEN: So, what have you heard from clients who have been victimized by online art fraud?
Mr. DELIND: It's interesting, Liane. Lots of times people will bring things in for an appraisal, thinking they have found the next Mona Lisa online and bought it and then been very fooled to discover that it is not what they thought it was.
HANSEN: And have they spent a lot of money on these works?
Mr. DELIND: Well, in some cases they have but, you know, if you're buying something that is not real, any money is too much.
HANSEN: All right. Let's just say on the one hand we have a real fine art print; on the other hand we have a fake art print. Ballpark: how much would the real one be worth and how much would the fake one be worth?
Mr. DELIND: I was shown a Picasso drawing, a would-be Picasso drawing, and it looked very good. We've checked the books and it looked perfect. But in digging deeper and putting a very powerful microscope on the line, you could tell that the line was broken. And if Picasso was anything, he was a fast artist who could draw, and he would not have stopped his line in mid-flight two or three times. He would make one continuous line.
And that was the key to then discovering later on that it was a laser-produced piece.
HANSEN: What was the real Picasso worth?
Mr. DELIND: A real Picasso drawing is worth somewhere between 75 and 125 thousand dollars. Of course, a reproduction of it is worth about two dollars and fifty cents.
HANSEN: Is there any way really to protect yourself against these scams?
Mr. DELIND: Well, if you do want to go online, probably it should be because you are an art collector and hopefully you have a little knowledge of what it is you're looking for.
There are hundreds of thousands of people selling art online. I would say probably 99 percent of them are very legitimate, except the fraudulent ones are the one that are there doing big business and frankly making millions of dollars. I get a kick out of the line - if you go online - "I don't know much about art, but..."
What that really is saying is that he doesn't want to get involved in guaranteeing something because he knows that it's not real.
HANSEN: Oh, that's interesting.
Mr. DELIND: You'll see that wording often if you look at art on eBay.
HANSEN: So, that's a red flag, in other words?
Mr. DELIND: Big time.
HANSEN: Yeah. In what ways has the prevalence of these fraudulent offerings online, you think, changed the art market itself?
Mr. DELIND: I think the whole idea that you now have a worldwide shopping experience by using the Internet probably has hurt stationary galleries. In my business, we are - if we're doing it right - we're professionals and that means that we're not just there to sell artwork, we're there to educate, we're there to learn our customers' needs, tastes, wants and maybe even be a jump ahead of them. So you build up a relationship with a client over many, many years and you never get that online.
HANSEN: Do you sell fine art prints anymore?
Mr. DELIND: I sell very few prints at all. I do sell them, you know, if I find a nice Toulouse-Lautrec. But generally I'm in paintings and drawings myself - one-of-a-kinds.
HANSEN: Yeah, why? 'Cause the prints are easier to fake?
Mr. DELIND: Yes.
HANSEN: We talked with a gallery owner in Manhattan who described online art fraud as a cancer on the art world. Would you agree?
Mr. DELIND: I think I would. Because of the Internet, everybody has equal access to finding something online, and without knowledge you have the potential of being burned.
HANSEN: Bill DeLind has been an art dealer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the past 39 years. Thank you for your time.
Mr. DELIND: You're welcome.
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HANSEN: Our story on art fraud was produced by David Schulman.