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.
Carry a pro kit.
Professional authenticators put together a fake-busting toolbox, and so can you. First, you'll need a loupe (those single-eye magnifying glasses used by jewelers). "You can take a closer look at signatures, chips, all that kind of thing," says Dowling. You should also carry a tape measure and a color chart that has information about historic pigments. "You could be looking at a painting that's [supposedly] 200 years old and all of a sudden find [a certain kind of] yellow that wasn't available until 60 years ago. Your little color chart is going to stop you getting caught out." Finally, pick up a cheap black light. "If you wave it over glass, you can see where it's been mended," says Dowling. "If you wave it over a painting, you can see where new paint has been added." And the tools aren't just useful, they also send a message. "If you just have those few tools like these in your pocket, two things are going to happen," he says. "You'll be able to identify damage yourself, and when you pull out your kit, that seller is going to take you a lot more seriously."
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