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.
Ask a lot of questions.
Don't be afraid to pepper sellers with an annoying number of queries. How do they know the item is authentic? Where did they get it from? When did they get it? What did they pay for it? How old is it? Has it been restored? The answers are helpful, of course, but even more crucial is how the vendor reacts. "This is authenticating the seller," says Dowling, "and the only way you can do that is ask questions. If someone isn't happy to answer those questions, walk out." Good sellers won't mind answering any question – and they won't pretend to have all the answers. "So if you've asked 20 questions and he answers 15, but to the rest says 'I'm not sure, but I'll find out for you,' then all of a sudden you've got an honest gentleman or lady in front of you.
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