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.
Try it before you buy it.
Want to start collecting lithographs? Take a lithography class. Thinking about buying an antique desk? Bone up on your carpentry skills. "If you're learning two-dimensionally, you're never going to be able to encounter problems that a maker or a forger would have come up against," says Dowling. "If you do it yourself, your eye is going to be so much keener on spotting what you think is the mistake. It's going to be far more difficult to fool you." And you don't need to become a master. Dowling says it only takes about three or four, say, pottery classes to know how a bowl, jar, or mug is made.
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