A few weeks ago here in my home county, seven sellers at the annual Hillsville, Va., Labor Day Flea Market were arrested for selling counterfeit brand-name goods. The goods consisted of cell phone accessories, jackets and perfumes with a street value of about $500,000. Four of the sellers were from Illinois, two from Kentucky and one from Pennsylvania. The investigation was conducted by state and local police and led by Blazer Investigations.
Blazer seems to be on the “cutting edge” of tracking down counterfeit consumer goods. Last April, Blazer, working with the Department of Homeland Security and US Customs, seized more than $47 million worth of counterfeit goods at the Patapsco Flea Market outside of Baltimore, Maryland.
One can hardly pick up a newspaper without reading about some new scheme designed to take our money. Fraud has been called the “second oldest profession”; the first recorded fraud was perpetrated in 300 B.C. by a Greek merchant named Hegestratos. It isn’t just us “commoners” who are defrauded, either; museum curators and experts are regularly defrauded. Even the Antique Roadshow has not been immune. [In fact, historically some of the most famous (and most interesting, in my opinion) frauds have concerned the antique and art businesses. What I find interesting about art and antique fraud is that, ultimately, they all have the same common denominator: The defrauded party (buyer or seller) didn’t know enough about what they were getting.
To clarify, when I speak of fraud I rely on its legal definition. One party misrepresents material facts to deceive another for personal gain. For fraud to be effective, a relationship of trust must exist, which is then abused by the fraudster.
A fraud isn’t the same thing as a fake. In her book “Fake, Fraud, or Genuine”, Myrna Kaye points out that fakes (reproductions, for example) aren’t frauds because they are manufactured with no intent to defraud. A seller who sells a reproduction as a genuine article, however, would be committing fraud (if he knew – or should have known – that the article was not genuine). When an auctioneer describes a piece as being “in the style of” Chippendale (or other notable) he’s not claiming the item to actually be a Chippendale and there is no fraud involved.
What’s the solution to the problem of fraud? How careful must we be? Is there a way to avoid fraud altogether? The short answer is no: technology aside, the world is too complex to completely protect ourselves from financial fraud, product fraud, identity fraud, online fraud, payment fraud and other schemes. We are subject to so many types of fraud that British police provide an alphabetized list for their citizens at http://www.actionfraud.police.uk/a-z_of_fraud.
But, if we are cautious (and not greedy) we can minimize our chance of being defrauded. Over time, collectors and dealers learn to adopt a “cautious state of mind,” a trait usually acquired immediately after being defrauded for the first time. As the saying goes: “Once bitten, twice shy.” In developing my own “cautious state of mind,” I have found the following seven tips to be helpful.
1. There is a difference between fraud and genuine ignorance but the results are the same, nevertheless. Ignorant sellers don’t have a clue what they actually have, and they tend to pass along unauthenticated stories as truth. They tell you what they have been told, even if it’s wrong. However, fraudulent sellers may feign ignorance as a selling tactic (we see this regularly on eBay): “I’m no expert, I bought this at a garage sale and here’s what I think it is…” In either instance, the cautious mind adopts a “buyer beware” attitude. What you see is what you get.
2. Fraudsters create their products with collectors in mind. Back in the 1980s, I became a fan of the BBC show “Lovejoy” starring Ian McShane. When the series ended in 1994, I began to read the Jonathan Gash books that spawned the series. Lovejoy was a ne’er-do-well, womanizing antique dealer with a penchant for uncovering antique fraud. He was good at discovering frauds because he was good at creating them. When Lovejoy was faced with creating an “impossible” forgery, he told an associate that the fake didn’t have to be perfect. All that had to be done, he said, was to include all of the features that appraisers were trained to look for. Once an appraiser had seen what they expected to see, they would look no further and proclaim the fake to be genuine. Real experts look past the common points of connoisseurship to develop an in-depth picture of the item they wish to purchase. Relying on Internet descriptions alone to determine the authenticity of an item will eventually lead to being defrauded.
3. Rely on common sense: If the price is too good to be true, it’s probably not the real thing.
4. What would it take to counterfeit this item? On some items, current prices don’t justify the effort to make a fake. Constructing a credible antique furniture fraud requires so much time and effort that these days it’s just not worth the effort (that doesn’t mean that it’s real though; the item may have been faked decades ago when prices were higher). On the other hand, creating fraudulent antique medicine bottles is relatively easy (and profitable). All that’s needed to fake these is a supply of old bottles, a few original labels, a good printer-scanner and some passable paper. A $2 bottle can be turned into a $50-$200 bottle fairly easily.
5. Dig for provenance. At flea markets and antique events, ask the seller how he obtained the item. Ask why he believes the item to be what he claims, and if he has any evidence to back up his claim. Pay attention to the seller’s body language, and trust your instincts. A story should be consistent with what is seen in the antique object and have a “ring of truth” about it. If you feel uneasy about making a purchase, then walk away from it. If the story and visual elements don’t conform, you are left with making the purchase based on your own greed rather than your common sense.
6. Items that are commonly faked will have books and web pages written about them. Knowing how items are commonly faked is as important as knowing an item’s basic points of connoisseurship.
As Jonathan Gash said in his book “The Great California Game”: “The risks in antiques fraud are relative. Other criminals risk the absolute. You’ve never heard of a fraudster involved in a shoot-out, of the “Come and get me, copper!” sort. Or of some con artist needing helicopter gunships to bring him. No, we subtle-mongers do it with the smile, the promise, the hint. And we have one great ally: greed. And make no mistake. Greed is everywhere, like weather.”
Originally published in Antique Trader Magazine