Take a Close Look

A few weeks ago, I spoke with an art collector who is more than comfortable buying works (in his case, photographs) via the Internet without seeing the prints in person. For many collectors, this is the norm, especially if thousands of miles separate the work from the buyer. The owner merely sends a jpg, the collector takes a look, and the sale is a matter of a few exchanged emails.

This kind of hands-off sale makes sense if you know the seller; the quality of the image; and have a good deal of background knowledge in terms of the artist and the provenance of the work. But that’s not always enough in the cyberspace art world. You also need a bit of art counterfeiting savvy because the presence of fake works sold online has skyrocketed in the past several years.

In 2004, the FBI started a division dedicated to art crimes, and one of the trends they have witnessed since then is the wholesale increase in art fraud, up as much as 300 percent. The latest indication of this came in March, when an FBI inquiry led to the prosecution of an international counterfeit ring that had pocketed over $5 million by selling fake prints—works supposedly by Chagall, Miro, Warhol and Picasso—on eBay.

Most vulnerable are art prints, which are perhaps the easiest works to counterfeit, especially with the use of modern technology like laser printers and scanners. There’s no surefire way to avoid getting swindled by a seller bent on deceit, but buyers can protect themselves by verifying the identity of a seller or source of a work, and walking away if a deal seems too good to be true.