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.
Get it tested.
Twenty years ago, hiring a lab to help authenticate artwork was an expensive proposition. Today, it's a lot more accessible to ordinary buyers. Don't be afraid to ask a seller if you can get stuff checked out. The right test (radiocarbon dating, infrared photography, X-rays) can, for example, determine the age of paint samples or the chemical composition of varnish from a piece of furniture (if it comes back with formaldehyde, you'll know the finish isn't old). "If you're buying an expensive table or a Honus Wagner baseball card, there is a test available that will give you confidence to put your hand in your pocket," says Dowling. "Some of these tests are very simple, and there are places all over the country that can do them." And again, any reluctance on the seller's part is a red flag. "If someone turns you down, you're going to say, 'Right, then I've got my answer. Thanks for your time,'" Dowling suggests.
Credit: Sean Conaty / CNBC