For lovers of fine art, it was a veritable field day.
In art shows and galleries across the nation and around the world and over eBay, a trove of limited edition prints by master artists started going up for sale as early as the summer of 1999.
There were two 1968 Pablo Picasso etchings signed in pencil by the artist and numbered from an edition of only 50 prints.
There was a signed print of the “Eiffel Tower” by Marc Chagall, just one of 90.
There was another Picasso print—a drawing called “Francoise Gilot”—that had been obtained from the legendary artist’s daughter.
There were thousands of prints by Calder, Dali, Warhol, Miro, Lichtenstein, and other noted artists, often signed and numbered, complete with certificates of authenticity.
All sold for top dollar.
And all total fakes.
The prints sold by select dealers, it turns out, were counterfeits. The signatures had been forged, the certificates fabricated, the prices driven to inflated levels by “shill bids” on eBay and by other marketing trickery.
Now, seven individuals allegedly behind two separate but overlapping counterfeit art rings—including art dealers in Illinois, Florida, and New York and distributors in Spain and Italy—have been charged in two indictments announced on Wednesday. Together, the scheme is said to have cost victims in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, and the U.S. more than $5 million.
The case, code-named “Operation Dealer no Deal,” was launched two-and-a-half years ago by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Chicago Division of the FBI after eBay stepped forward with information about fake artwork being sold through its Internet auction website.
“EBay was a great partner in this case,” said Chicago Special Agent Brian Brusokas, a member of the FBI’s Art Crime Team who worked on the investigation. “They identified sellers for us, gave us bidding histories, and shut down accounts used by con artists.”
Postal inspectors played a key role by going undercover in online transactions and in face-to-face meetings. Also contributing to the investigation were Los Mossos d’Esquadra (the Catalan police force) in Barcelona, Spain; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents; and the Northbrook Police Department in Illinois.
Don’t let it happen to you. Special Agent Brusokas has a few words of advice when it comes to buying high-dollar art:
“Get a complete provenance or chain of custody on each piece to find out where the art came from originally. Was it obtained directly from an estate, for example? This information provides a way to double-check the piece’s history instead of just relying on the certificate of authenticity.”
“Research the dealer carefully. Check the Better Business Bureau for possible complaints. Find out if they sell only online or if they have a gallery.”
“For pieces of art you already own, you can go back to the gallery and ask for provenance on your print. You can also contact artists’ foundations which will do side-by-side comparisons with originals for a fee.”
“And remember, when you’re trying to find that one treasure from someone’s garage, that’s when you’re more likely to let your guard down.”
Think you’ve been victimized by fraudulent art sales? Then report it to law enforcement by visiting the Northern District of Illinois U.S. Attorney website or by calling its toll-free number at (866) 364-2621.
The FBI’s Art Crime Team, launched in 2004, includes 13 special agents and three Department of Justice attorneys. To date, the team has recovered 850 cultural objects valued at more than $134 million.