A few years ago, art investigator Curtis Dowling was hired by a man in France who'd just spent more than $100 million on a Picasso. Having handed over a nine-figure check, he wanted to make sure the painting was real. "He'd pretty much spent every last penny to own this Picasso," says Dowling. "It had passed down through a number of sources, and he thought he'd gotten a bargain." As it turned out, he had not. The painting was fake, and the guy was now the proud owner of a $100 million hunk of scrap canvas. "Let's just say I had a very disappointed customer," says Dowling.
On the new reality show 'Treasure Detectives' (CNBC, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST), Dowling and his team authenticate – or often don't authenticate – all kinds of artwork and collectibles. Dowling says fraud is a huge problem: He estimates 40 percent of the stuff he comes across is phony. "It's a bad batting average, but it's true," he says. "It's easier to fake a Picasso than it is to smuggle heroin. Even organized crime now is using the art market to generate a fortune from forgery."
And you don't have to shell out a hundred mil to get screwed. Even people dabbling at the bottom of the market need to be careful when hunting for cool old stuff, whether it's a 19th-century painting or an autographed Beatles LP. Here are some of Dowling's tips for how not to get ripped off.
Be an art lover, not just an art collector.
Before investing, spend as much time as you can appreciating the highest-quality art you have access to. The more hours you spend gawking at the greats, the better-informed you'll be when it comes time to open your wallet. "It's all about the sensitivity of visual perception," says Dowling. "You need the basics. If you go to a museum, you'll be seeing the best of the best and using that fine art as your benchmark to look at everything else." Spend enough time looking at masterpieces, and you'll be better able to recognize the quality of something valuable that you might stumble onto at a yard sale. "Because you spent so much time staring at these beautiful, expensive items, it's going to jump out at you."
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