“There are only four thousand Picasso etchings, and over seven thousand of them are in the United States”. Hahaha, I love that quote, which I picked out of a good short article which was presented to me in LinkedIn and come from the Art, Antiques and Luxury Design Blog. This article is a great teaching tool to new collectors on the subject of “Trust” in the fine arts and antiques buying world. Again, and I will talk about this over and over and over, provenance, trust and caution are critical, and the above quote and this article brings that home. I think that the quote would be more accurate if it said, “There are only four thousand Picasso etchings, and over thirty thousand of them are in the United States”. There are more fakes than real ones, I have no doubt about that. It also brings home the fact that just because an art or antique dealer “says it’s so” does not “make it so”, without proof that “it is so”, so ask for proof or hire someone like me to check it out for you before you buy. If they can not prove it, or we believe it is questionable, do not buy it, regardless of what your emotions want to do. There is always another cool thing just around the corner. Also, because the dealer is a “major player” or “well-known,” does not necessarily mean they are actually good at what they do or can be trusted, often ego and narcissism are involved, so “buyer beware” is THE RULE! Someone who tells you that they are not sure and/or need to look into various aspects and get back to you about it is far more trustworthy than someone who always knows every answer. Just ask yourself this, do you know everything about your highest expertise in your life, let alone all of your interests? If you do, you are a rare bird and congratulations! If you are in an art gallery that only sells Picasso works, they may indeed know almost everything about Picasso and his works, if you are not in such a specialty gallery, then you must be your best advocate with your money until you have the proof, then you can let your guard down.
I was just told a story 3 days ago about a situation where one of the wealthiest families in the US/world found they had been duped into thinking that they were buying monolithic antique Chinese ivory tiled statues. They had surely spent several hundred thousand dollars on them. When they later had them appraised, they were shocked and embarrassed to find out that they had been sold fakes made in the 1990’s! These statues still had value, about $10,000 each, but not hundreds-of-thousands! Ouch! So, wealth is not a barrier against being ripped off either. You must check your ego at the door when buying, and expect that you are being set up – period! The lesson from this, which I have previously written about, is that once you have found something you love, it is well worth paying a professional like me to pre-examine them before you buy. In this family’s case it would have been more than well worth flying me to China, if that is where they were purchased (I do not know that part of the story), let alone to another state, let alone to another city, etc., which costs are small compared to the loss due to fraud. Caution is the better part of valor (desire) in the fine art and antiques world. We (experts) are well worth the cost versus savings, and we might instead even help you find a real find for a really great price too.
Remember this, despite it being a sad fact, over 95% of all art and antique “dealers” are dishonest to one degree or another. Yes really! Let me state that again, over 95% of all art and antiques dealers are dishonest to one degree or another! Sometimes it is a small “addition” to the facts to try to “entice” you into being excited into buying, some times it is out right fraud. But what is the difference either way if you get ripped off? For me, the point is, even a little lie makes one dishonest forever, and it is unfortunately all too true that this behavior is rampant in this industry, which is very dangerous for a trusting new collector. Once a dealer has done it once with positive effect for their increase in sales, it has only one way to snowball, the wrong way. Yes, really, 95% – or more! And preaching that they did not know, or that the person who they acquired the piece from said so is not an acceptable excuse, unless they genuinely apologize, are curious about their error and what was found, do not put the piece back out for sale with the same information(let alone excluding the new information you bring to them) and most importantly pay you back in full, which may or may not include shipping costs. If they do this, I would still trust them, otherwise, do not! I had a very rare policy in the antiques industry for my old fine Asian art and antiques gallery, which was, if you could show me through an authority’s statement what I missed or why I was wrong about one of my descriptions/dating/etc., I would buy the piece back, with no expiration date, as long as I was still running the gallery. I never had a piece returned, because I up held my end of the bargain in being a dealer because I had done my work on each piece before I would put it on the floor for sale.
I continue to be shocked when I go into art and antique galleries by the huge number of terribly misidentified items, materials, dates, locations, etc. It is the dealers job to know, that is really what you are paying them for, to know the difference so you can be sure of what you are buying from them for your good money, right? Right! If their policy is “all sales are final”, then you can ask them to modify that policy and put it in writing on the receipt, it must be in writing! If they will not, then you can bet they do not know their business. The reverse of this is that they might miss something valuable, and you may come across a great find cheap! It does go both ways if you know more than they do.
The lesson a beginner needs to get, be smart, do not fall for the sexiness of what you are being told and look for red flags! Make sure all aspects can be backed up including the medium things are made in/what they are made of and what the provenance is! Before buying expensive pieces, have them put those facts in writing. If they don’t, be careful! Legit dealers have true confidence in what they are selling and have no problems putting it in writing. To be successful as a real collector, you must deal with caution with everyone in the art and antiques industry at every level until you have a long and very well established relationship that is built on results, which then produces trust. This is exemplified in this story. The other important thing to understand is the wise old statement that “extraordinary claims, require extraordinary proof.” In the case in this article, the story falls apart very quickly, as there was no provenance and the “dealer” could not even properly identify the medium used to create the work! This is like having an aircraft carrier sized red flag being waved right in front of your face – “BUYER DO NOT TRUST THIS LISTING!” So, have a nice read, the article can be found at: http://art-antiques-design.com/2013/03/25/educating-art-buyers-part-2-by-lawrence-klepper/?goback=%2Egde_153474_member_226094189. The image below is from http://www.rottingtelevision.com/lmfao-big-red-flags-blog/.
Which are you looking at? The sexiness “of the piece” or the red flag? Final question, which is going to win, your emotions or your intellect? It is your choice, choose wisely! And, do not be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help! We may save you thousands, hundreds-of-thousands or even millions of dollars! Well worth our costs.
Greg C. Brown, MS, ISA.