Art fraud forges ahead

Fraud in the collection of fine art


By John F. Daab, CFE

  

Art fraud and forgeries often are ignored in the world of white-collar crime. However, this small subset of fraud is growing globally as more unsuspecting novice collectors enter a world unfettered by internal controls. Learn how to detect and prevent fraud in this multibillion-dollar industry.  

Vilas Likhite, a Los Angeles doctor, was said to have owned a multimillion-dollar art collection inherited from an Indian maharajah. His collected works included the names of Brancusi, Lichtenstein, Chagall, Casatt, and others. The pieces he collected were best described as "museum quality." At times, he could be persuaded to sell some of these works to trusted friends for exceptionally low prices. However, a recent sale of a Casatt proved to be his downfall when he sold it to an undercover police detective who specialized in art fraud. All of Likhite's carefully documented works, some presented in a three-ring binder, were fakes.

Also the documents supposedly supporting the authenticity of the art were forged. According to the art fraud detective, the fraudulent art pieces looked like they had been purchased in a dollar store because they were so bad. When the police searched his one-room condo, some of the works still were wet with paint. At the time of his arrest, another buyer filed a complaint that the piece she purchased from him was a forgery (Moore, 2004).

Bob Keerseweer won an art auction on eBay by bidding $135,805 for a Diebenhorn painting. What Bob didn't know was that Rob Walton, the owner of the work, was part of a ring specializing in driving up the price of the auction. The ring posted 50 bids on the same auction that Keerseweer won. Bob also didn't know that the work was a forgery. Walton and his gang were eventually arrested and convicted (Silicon Valley Staff, 2001).

Eli Sakhia was a respectable art gallery owner in business for 15 years in Manhattan. He sold privately and to auction houses in the United States and abroad. What he failed to tell his private buyers was that they were buying the forgeries and the auction houses were getting the real works. His modus operandi was to purchase originals, sell them to auction houses, and hire artists in the interim to reproduce fakes for sale to his clients. His problems started when a past buyer of a fake tried to sell his forged piece while Sakhia attempted to sell the original to another auction house. The houses brought in an expert who stated that the past buyer's work was a fake. Sakhia was arrested and convicted; he's expected to serve three to four years in prison (Campanile, 2004).

Ken Dreifach, head of the Internet Bureau at the New York State Attorney General's office, reported the reoccurring sales of a forged painting. An individual purchased a painting from the Art and Design Center of New York City and brought it to an art expert for appraisal who determined the work was a forgery. The Art and Design Center refunded the money to the purchaser but then sold it to another individual. That person also had it evaluated by an expert who said it was a fake. The Center refunded the money to the second purchaser. Then an undercover investigator from the attorney general's office bought the same painting and the jig was up. The attorney general filed charges and the case was settled against the Center for various monetary charges (Department of Law, 2001).

At a recent exhibition held in Helsinki, Finland, which was showing works of Dali, Chagall, Picasso, Miro, and Warhol, the police impounded 450 forged works of Dali along with other fake pieces. The exhibition was closed down, and its organizer was arrested (BBC, 2004).

The multibillion-dollar world of fine art collecting takes place in art galleries, auction houses, estate sales, antique road shows, and the global Internet (Antiques and the Arts Online, 2004). There are few protections and controls in the selling and buying of fine art.

As fraud examiners, much of our attention centers on embezzlements, kickbacks, revenue overstatements, payroll schemes, skimming, and scores of other types of fraud. Art forgery may be just a headline we ignore on the way to the business page.

However, this small subset of fraud is growing globally as more unsuspecting novice collectors enter a world unfettered by internal controls.


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