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.
Hit the books.
The most important strategy is to never buy something blind. This is one area where you really do need to do your homework. "I know they say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but no knowledge is a lot more dangerous," says Dowling. "If you don't have some knowledge, nearly everything you buy won't be right. Know your subject." And while it'll be tempting to start plugging keywords into Google, Dowling suggests your local library might be safer. "The Internet is a great source of information, but it's also a great source of disinformation," he says. "It has been used by criminals and continues to be. The Internet is great for basics. It's certainly not good if you're about to put your hand in your pocket, whether it's $50 or $5 million."
Credit: Lynn James / Getty Images