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.
If you can't touch it, don't buy it.
You need to get your hands on something to get any sense of whether it's the real deal. "Your senses will tell you so much in a very short period of time," says Dowling "It comes down to muscle memory. If you hold 50 Lalique car mascots and the 51st is a fake, you'll know it doesn't feel right. Buying items that you haven't touched, felt, smelt...you're asking for trouble." That means you shouldn't buy stuff over the Internet, and always examine a potential auction purchase before bidding. "It could be chipped, it could be broken, it could be fake," says Dowling. "If you can't handle it, you really, really shouldn't be buying it."
Credit: Getty Images