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A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

You can’t con an honest man - or woman - or can you?

I vaguely remembered the article in a local newspaper reporting that a fellow fraudster I knew (Let's call him Tom) had been convicted of scamming a middle-aged woman out of her inheritance using what the press enjoy calling ‘romance fraud’. Tom served 6 months in prison and when I saw him by chance in a coffee shop, he looked genuinely shaken by the experience. Although we were not close friends, he knew my areas of particular interest and I knew his. I jokingly asked him if he intended to ‘hang up his boots’ or if he intended to continue practising. He told me that the smell of prison made him feel physically sick and that being separated from his 3 kids was more than he could risk again. At the risk of pointing out the bleeding obvious, I commented that a second conviction for another fraud related offence would undoubtedly result in a longer prison sentence, and it seemed to me that in his particular case, the risk was just not worth it.

Expecting Tom to reluctantly agree and ask for help composing a CV, he shocked me when he said he had come across a method of earning a considerable income that did indeed involve an element of dishonesty, but carried almost no risk. This appeared to be the Holy Grail of all fraudsters! Upon further enquiry, he explained that his discovery came about when his brother-in-law ‘Bob’ told him about him missing out on a fortune due to his own ignorance. Apparently Bob had been at a Car Boot Sale and took a liking to a painting tucked under a paste table and being offered for sale for £5. It could best be described as ‘abstract’ in fact it was so abstract that he couldn’t decide which was to top and which was the bottom. Nevertheless he loved it. Other stall holders were packing up and he cheekily offered £3, at which she bit his hand off rather than lug it home.

Bob returned home and asked his wife where she preferred it to be hung, hallway or living room? Put politely, her reply suggested somewhere warmer, darker but anatomically impossible! The pain caused by the raised relief of the faux-rococo frame on such tender body parts would have been unbearable. Crestfallen from his wife’s comments, Bob decided to throw it in the bin and move on. As he struggled to get the painting into the recycling bin on his drive, he realised that if he liked it enough to buy it then so might someone else. He put his wife’s opinion to one side and placed the painting onto the kitchen worktop. He took three pictures on his phone; one of them of the canvas itself, one of the frame, and one of what appeared to be a signature in the bottom right hand corner. He had an account with a well-known online auction site that his wife had used to sell used kids clothing and toys rather than bin them or send them to a charity shop. He logged on and quickly listed his painting including the 3 photographs and a starting bid of 99p.

He told his wife what he had done and suggested that the viewing public would be the final arbiter of good taste and support his view that the painting was indeed beautiful. The auction was due to run for 10 days and for the first 72 hours he constantly checked on progress, of which there was none, then he forgot all about it. Bob was shocked when a week later, he received an email stating that the auction had ended and the winner named ’artnut1962’ had transferred the full payment of £446.78 to his account and requested him to make contact regarding delivery. He rang his wife to give her the good news and gloat. She was as surprised as he was and gracefully admitted that perhaps she had been wrong.

The winner of the auction stated that he did not live too far away and would collect the painting in person rather than put him to the trouble of posting it. Bob checked that the money had cleared, readily agreed to his suggestion and arranged a day and time. The chap arrived on time and was very pleasant. He complimented Bob on the front garden and decor and gratefully accepted a cup of tea. He said that it had been a long drive but had been worth it. He apologised profusely and asked if Bob would give him a receipt for the painting that reflected the full purchase price in order that he could provide it to any future buyer should he choose to sell it. Bob was happy to comply and once done, the buyer placed the painting into the back of his Range Rover then walked slowly back to the front door. He tentatively asked if Bob knew anything more about the painting. Bob explained where had got it and boasted of knocking down the already low asking price. He laughed out loud when he told this guy about how his wife had thought it awful and how he had now proved her wrong.

The buyer confirmed that Bob was correct inasmuch as the painting might be worth something. Much to Bob's dismay, this guy believed that the painting could actually be worth in excess of £5,000. The buyer pointed out that the painting was probably by a reasonably well-known and documented artist and whoever sold it to him at the Car Boot Sale clearly didn't have a clue what they were selling either. The buyer did not sneer or look down his nose at Bob, but bid him a cheery farewell and drove off very happy. Bob was seething at missing out on the find of a lifetime but decided not to tell his wife in order to save his own blushes.

Tom listened to Bob’s tale of woe and dutifully provided tea and sympathy, however, inside Tom’s head the wheels were turning. Whilst someone who had a little knowledge had taken advantage of Bob’s naivety and lack of knowledge, what if Tom could manipulate the situation for his own benefit? It’s not as if you can con an honest man or woman - so anyone else, must be by definition - dishonest themselves.

Tom’s idea was simple. He would buy cheap artwork from local auction houses and charity shops, take poor quality photographs - including one of the artists signature (that he had just added) and put them onto an online auction with just enough information to give the impression that he was a naive seller who did not realise that the painting in question might be worth a lot of money. His descriptions were vague and offered nothing in the way of provenance and made no claim as to who the artist might be. If he was subsequently accused of selling a painting with a forged signature he would feign complete innocence and point out that he made no claim to know who the artist was and any blame must lie with the purchaser who was clearly attempting to take advantage of a seller who did not realise the potential value of the painting.

Tom began his research in earnest and the Internet provided him with almost everything he needed without leaving his laptop. He realised he also needed to invest in a copy of “Davenport’s Art Reference and Price Guide’ and another book that provided examples of the signatures used by listed artists. Helpfully, many artists signatures changed significantly, thus providing Tom with plenty of opportunities to exploit the greed of potential buyers. He knew he had to be sensible, passing off a Constable or a Rembrandt was a non-starter, however, he realised that there is a large number of contemporary artists from the 50’s onwards who painted abstract canvasses and attracted a huge following both in the UK and the USA. He decided to target the work of these artists.

He spent hours at his laptop learning about a dozen or so artists with a style and signature that appeared to be easy enough to copy. After about 3 weeks of scouring the local charity shops he had only found one painting that fitted the bill. He attempted to copy a signature of one of his chosen artists from the internet, however, it stood out like the proverbials on a bulldog so he binned it. He was on the point of going back to romance scams when a flyer on the noticeboard of the local library caught his eye. ‘Art Exhibition -today only - in Meeting Room on First Floor’ He bounded up the stairs to find an empty room displaying about 50 paintings by local artists and the local college.

A cursory search revealed about 6 that he could use, 2 by local artists and 4 from the college down the road. A major consideration was whether they were already signed or not. Why anyone would want to put their names to this craft-less tat was beyond him. He negotiated deals on them all and went home to think. He notionally assigned each of them to a listed artist and began practicing variations of their signatures. Once he was content with his efforts he signed them, some on the front and some on the back.

The first to go onto the internet was a large canvas that he had paid £35 for. The initials he added suggested that it was by an artist who (typically) died in poverty, long before his true genius was acknowledged. He described it as ‘Large oil painting about 3’x2’. Various dark shades of red with something going on in the background. Bought from a Car Boot Sale and my wife hates it’ He took a few badly lit photographs including one of the signature and posted on a 10 day auction ending at 8pm. He received a couple of questions regarding the painting’s history and simply referred them back to his posting.

One chap with a username of ‘Renaissancexxx’ asked for a close up of the signature but Tom just fobbed him off with ‘Its from a Car Boot Sale mate, I can’t even read the signature and anyway I’m a bit busy’ Tom them used his wife’s email account from the internet connection at a local coffee shop to start to drive up the price. Before long his wife (unknown to her!) and the Renaissance guy were battling it out on the auction site. As it entered the final minute, Renaissance guy bid £4444.44 and won the auction. Tom poured himself a very large scotch and dreamed about a whole new way to make a lot of money.

Renaissance man paid by bank transfer and organised a courier to collect the painting a few days later. He posted positive feedback and then rang Tom. He advised Tom that he was a semi-professional art collector and even before winning the auction, had pre-sold the painting to another collector in North America for nearly £20,000. This chap did not go as far as calling Tom ignorant, he did however advise Tom that he needed to be careful playing with things he didn’t understand. He finished the call to Tom with ‘ Don’t forget, Big Boys Games means Big Boys Rules’ How right he was.

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