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.
No matter how well you follow the previous eight pieces of advice, you're never going to be as savvy as an expert, and it's often possible to enlist pros who really know what they're doing. "If you're buying anything, drag in somebody else," says Dowling. "Quite often you'll find an art expert or antique dealer will accompany you. Sometimes he'll [charge] a small fee" – Dowling suggests $250 wouldn't be unreasonable – "but he [might] actually get you a discount on the item you're about to buy." And it never hurts to pick up the phone. Dowling suggests calling other dealers to see what they have to say. "If you phone 10 people and ask them their opinion, two or three are just going to be horrible and say 'I wouldn't buy from him.' But if nine say that, then you probably know not to."