eBay Art Full of Fakes

San Jose, California -- Since its inception, eBay has become a den of art forgery, an unregulated market where ignorant art enthusiasts are easy prey for forgers and scam artists, say many experts.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network have learned to avoid the eBay website for fine art purchases.

On can easily find an eBay seller in Hungary with “original” Warhols and Basquiats.

Experts say that a large number of collectors are duped when buying fine art online.

Connecticut gallerist David Crespo found himself in this situation when he was charged with mail and wire fraud in 2012 after selling forged work both on eBay and out of his gallery.

After Sotheby’s declared 21 “original” Picassos he purchased for less than $50,000 on eBay to be fake, Crespo nevertheless resold them on the open—and less discerning—market.

In late June, John Re was arrested on charges of engaging in an eBay forgery scheme that earned him $1.9 million.

Re is accused of starting an eBay forgery operation in 2005, telling private collectors that he’d stumbled on a cache of Jackson Pollock paintings in 1999 while cleaning out an elderly woman’s estate in Long Island, New York.

Fifty-eight of the works Re is accused of selling went to the same collector for $519,890, the paintings ranging in price from $1,000 to $60,000; 12 others were allegedly sold to a different collector for $894,500; and three others allegedly to a third collector for $475,000.

In April, a Florida pastor named Kevin Sutherland was convicted of trying to sell fraudulent Damien Hirst paintings.

Sutherland had unwittingly purchased the paintings from a forger in California on eBay. But when he took them to Sotheby’s in New York to be appraised and auctioned, the house responded that it couldn’t authenticate the work. (They had contacted Damien Hirst’s camp in London, which declared the paintings fake).

He might have been a victim of fraud when initially purchasing the paintings, but Sutherland was later arrested after he attempted to offload the paintings for $175,000 to an undercover detective.

Confidence Game

“People still believe that there are all these treasures out there and that they’re going to be the ones to discover them,” says Loll. “There’s still this Antiques Roadshow mentality infiltrating the online art marketplace," says Colette Loll, an expert in art fraud who consults with eBay and has trained federal agents in forgery investigations

A recent academic study estimated that up to 91 percent of supposed Henry Moore drawings and sculptures sold on eBay were fake.

And often, it’s the more sophisticated buyer— the art collector—who thinks they’ve won the lottery when they discover an undervalued art work on the Internet.

Duped Buyer

Henry Stephenson is one of those duped buyers. He ignored red flags until the Picasso works were on his walls. “The works were all coming in around the same size, and the certificates of authenticity and provenances were all printed on the same paper with the same old typewriter."

He sent two watercolors to the Picasso Administration, the body which authenticates the Spanish painter’s work, which concluded they were fakes.

The pigments were chemically tested and found to have been created with paint produced in 2000 (The artist died in 1973).

eBay Not Liable

Joe Gioconda, an intellectual property lawyer who litigates against online counterfeiters, predicts that the number of consumers being defrauded will continue to skyrocket because both sellers and intermediaries like eBay are rarely held accountable for forgery crimes. “Art forgery doesn’t fit neatly into any legal theory that has a strong remedy,” says Gioconda. “If you’re defrauded, your remedies are typically going to be under state law.”

Although eBay makes a direct profit from sales, it is not liable unless it had knowledge of a suspicious seller.

In a statement, eBay said it “aggressively detects and removes members who engage in any type of fraudulent behavior,” and that it encourages members of its community to bring fraudulent listings to its attention through the “Report Item” link or form. “Once submitted, a detailed review is initiated and vetted by our teams, and listings deemed fraudulent will be removed promptly.”

But in a quick look at eBay one finds plenty of too-good-to-be-true art auctions. And would-be collectors continue to distort the cultural record in their hunt for hidden treasures.