If you’re selling fake art online, this is truly a golden age.
This is especially true if you sell images attributed to famous artists like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat, because in 2012 the Basquiat Estate and the Keith Haring Foundation stopped authenticating jobs. To complicate matters, the long-standing policy of the Andy Warhol Foundation, according to a spokesperson, is that it “[does not] give opinions on works of art purporting to be by Andy Warhol.
While this is bad news for potential buyers, it’s great news for shady sellers. With little authority to oversee them, you are essentially on your own to determine if an artwork is fake or not. This is a problem on platforms such as eBay, Etsy, and Amazon, all of which rely primarily on complaints to identify problem sellers. Since platforms make money from completed transactions, they are discouraged from actively checking their artwork listings. Judging by the number of sales each year, these platforms could well earn hundreds of thousands or even millions every year from fees. Why on earth would they cancel these transactions?
Looking for passive income streams, many sellers don’t even have physical inventory – they use “print on demand” services like Printbest which also connect to Shopify, Etsy, and eBay, making it remarkably easy to set up an online store. A seller simply needs to upload images and then promote the online store. The platform does the rest, including printing and shipping the actual item. Therefore, the Keith Haring “poster” you get for cheap might just be a print.
Some scammers trick buyers by using art terminology to make it look like they are selling a real painting or print when in fact they are not. Because intentionally selling fake and counterfeit art is illegal, most include language in their description to grant them plausible deniability in case they get caught selling fakes. Some sellers, of course, err on the side of caution and state adamantly that their item is genuine.
Below are some examples of fake items being sold with misleading listings.
Catalog pages marketed as impressions
As unlikely as it may seem, there are quite a few sellers hoping to pass off pages from art books or exhibition catalogs as “vintage prints”. One such example on eBay was a since-deleted “hand-signed” print of Keith Haring’s “Portrait of Grace Jones”. Based on the title alone, one would assume that this is an authentic Haring copy. The photos showed the signature and a certificate of authenticity (COA). Suspiciously, however, the COA listed a date of 2002, not from the Haring Foundation but from the seller himself. The piece was a bookplate removed from its original publication and presented to the artist for what is called a complementary signature – as in “with the compliments of the artist” – usually made for admirers, gallery owners, vernissages or friends, a bit like an autograph. The signature as such does not come from a limited edition numbered series.
Asked about its authenticity, the seller, who went through gallery-100, replied cryptically: “This type of art has no history on which to base its provenance. It is therefore impossible to say with certainty that Keith Haring signed the piece..”
“I purchased the piece believing it to be signed by Keith Haring’s hand,” they added.
However, it is still offered as a vintage print signed by the artist. Or are they just claiming the signature is real? There is no value in a COA from a seller who cannot verify the authenticity of what they are selling. The only function such a document can serve is to deceive people who don’t know better. You can take a bet and buy it for $169.99 or the best offer. (At the time, this seller was offering 83 similar book pages which we believe were all signed by Haring and Warhol – but without proof.)
from eBay Politics makes it clear that users should refrain from listing works if they are unsure of their authenticity. Of course, eBay does not actively monitor its auction listings, but instead relies on dealers, collectors, experts, buyers, and potential buyers to notify them of issues with particular artworks. Never mind.
Brazenly Fake Paintings
Fake paintings are offered in eBay auctions all the time. In March, a purported Basquiat original went on sale for $199,000 or best offer. The description was ridiculously vague but hit key points – including listing the work’s provenance as “a collector who died in 2013” – without providing any evidence or evidence. When asked for proof that the painting was real, the seller said he had “contacted Christie’s but without success so far, and that’s why the work is listed on eBay”. Impatient with my questions, the seller stopped responding.
The truth is that anybody can make a copy of a painting, add a fake signature and sell it as an “original”. Another big counterfeit seller, eBay user raulrisco0 offers, among others, fake paintings by Botero, Haring, Basquiat and Van Gogh. To his credit, when confronted with their authenticity, he replied, “I want to be honest with you, I found these paintings in a warehouse, I don’t know if it’s original or not.”
This answer, of course, is a perfect example of wanting to maintain plausible deniability. He simultaneously admits that the paintings might not be real and lets potential buyers entertain the fantasy that they might be. Plausible deniability is a legal gray area that many buyers have become accustomed to. We see it all the time on shows like Antiques Roadshow, Pawn Stars and American Pickers, where people are celebrated for recognizing a diamond in the rough. Scammers, however, take advantage of the fact that everyone wants to win the lottery.
Canvas prints on demand
A passing Etsy user canvasgallerytr sold images advertised as the work of Banksy and Haring, among others. All canvas “prints” are available in sizes ranging from 8 by 12 ($30) up to 38 by 63 inches ($237). When I wrote to the user and asked if the works were real and if they were an authorized or approved dealer, he replied, “I do high resolution images on the internet. Keith gave permission to reproduce the photos on his site My customers are very satisfied with the products.
The seller appears to be based in Turkey, but the Haring Foundation website makes it clear that the Keith Haring studio owns the international copyright in all works created by the artist, and that “his works may not be reproduced in any manner without the express written permission of the Haring studio”. Needless to say, it is highly unlikely that Keith Haring has licensed this user to produce unlimited printed canvas prints of his work to sell on Etsy for next to nothing.
In such cases, the harm here is not to the buyer, but to the holders of the rights to Haring’s work. When unscrupulous sellers steal artists’ work, they’re taking money out of the artists’ pockets, or in this case, the Keith Haring Studio.
Reproductions of exhibition posters
Similar to suppliers of print-on-demand Haring canvases, the seller Etsy LaCédilleQuiSourit offers several pages of reproductions of famous exhibition posters. When I asked about a classic poster published by the Whitney Museum, the Etsy seller responded by trying to bribe me with a free print:
“Hello – as stated all over the site, these are facsimiles that I save, scan, edit and share. If you are interested in the file to print yourself, let me know and I will send it to you with pleasure without commitment and free of charge; this project is more about sharing with other enthusiasts than anything else!
Despite this user’s apparent passion for the concept of democratizing access to art, he charges for copies. Depending on the size, posters cost between $22.45 and $57.68. In most cases, it is not legal to reprint copyrighted works without permission from the copyright holder, even if you state that they are copies. In fact, there is a name for this practice: piracy.
The Shill auction scam
Since eBay allows completely private auctions, the practice of shilling auctions is difficult to detect. “Successful bidding” occurs when a dishonest seller uses multiple accounts to make it look like multiple people are bidding on an item. When a potential buyer sees bidders vying for an artwork, this manufactured interest gives them an air of legitimacy and authenticity.
With a fake account, a seller can win their own low-priced auction and even leave themselves positive feedback! Unfortunately, eBay’s shilling bidding policy is also hands-off:
“If you think another member is bidding, you don’t need to let us know. eBay has a number of systems in place to detect and monitor bidding patterns and practices. If we identify malicious behavior, we will take action to prevent it,” reads one. statement on the company’s website.
Ultimately, the art auction system is designed make money, not lose it. Big auction houses and marketplaces tend to be more meticulous in their approach to vetting sellers, but even then, unless someone can prove something is real, don’t forget ask questions and do your own research. As always – buyer beware!