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.
Sorry, but that probably isn't Cleopatra's coffee mug.
Some of the riskiest purchases are ordinary objects that are supposedly connected to famous people or important events. Most of the time, there's just no way to definitively verify provenance. "This is probably one of the biggest frauds of all time," says Dowling, "because isn't every pair of glasses the one that John Lennon was shot in? Isn't every tea bowl the one that Hirohito drank out of before he renounced his divinity? If you hear a story that sounds too good to be true, it probably is." In other words, don't ever just take somebody's word for it. If something's valuable just because of who once used it, then you're taking a huge gamble. You're much better off investing in something that's valuable because of what it is (a Rembrandt!), not because of who purportedly once owned it (Babe Ruth's dirty socks!).
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