Art Fraud - Go Big or Go Home
Following on from my last posting A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing and Susan Grossey's post in her excellent 'I hate Money Laundering blog' I thought it might be useful to update you on how 'Tom's' experience selling forged paintings spawned a scam that has made him rich beyond his wildest dreams and at the time of writing this, he has not been caught - yet.
Tom's success with his forgeries brought in a very nice income, based upon the greed of others and their willingness to take advantage of (what they believed to be) an ignorant seller. As far as Tom was concerned, all of his victims were fair game.
About 3 years ago, he found himself in some pop-up gallery in that part of London where hipsters love to live and breed. Man-buns, beards and skinny jeans were everywhere and he felt very under-dressed in his chinos and tee shirt. The purpose of visiting the gallery was to keep up to speed with what was happening in the art world but he was massively uninspired by what he found.
Tom's wife had grown accustomed to their new lifestyle and was putting him under pressure to sell more and more paintings. Whilst the online auction site was content with the fees they made when he sold a paining and were unlikely to cause a problem, Tom had heard rumblings of HMRC's interest in the income achieved by online auction sellers and were beginning to dig into areas that he'd rather they didn't. His average sale price was now approaching £5,000, and he was using several accounts through which he listed his paintings, however, he realised that he had to sell quite a few to keep his wife in the lifestyle she was now enjoying. He realised that going back to romance fraud was not a good idea, and he enjoyed his balmy afternoons and early evening wine fuelled exhibitions in boutique art galleries. He just needed to work out his next move.
The staff at these galleries were often pretentious fools who knew nothing about art; but relied upon their public school accents to persuade potential customers of their expertise. Through his diligent research, Tom had acquired a considerable amount of knowledge on certain artists especially those in the style of abstract expressionism, to the extent that he could have easily gone on Mastermind with Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock as his specialist subject.
He began to research the reasons how and why fakes were identified; It seemed to him that proving that a painting was genuine consisted of 3 areas of inspection (1) academic research into proof whether or not the painting ever actually existed, (2) whether or not the painting in question match the 'style' of the artist, (3) are the materials used correct for the purported age of the painting?
He did a brief calculation and realised that forging the number of paintings necessary to keep his wife happy, was sooner or later going to result in Police coming through the front door at some unearthly hour. He had small children so that had t be avoided at all costs. He could probably manage to talk his way out of 'inadvertently' selling a single forged painting, selling two would be a huge coincidence and any more would be viewed as a sophisticated and orchestrated scam. The more he sold, the greater the risk. The answer to his problem surely lay in producing one or two forgeries - but selling each of them for big money. Whilst faking a
Constable or a Rembrandt was obviously out of the question, he toyed briefly with the idea of creating a fake Rothko or Pollock in his garage but realised that his prowess in art began and ended with a matchstick man - although not in the 'style' of Lowry!
A week or so later he was at another Car Boot Sale searching for potential candidates to be remodelled into forgeries when he came across a guy he vaguely recognised selling counterfeit sports clothing. After a quick chat they realised that they had both been involved in the same share scam years ago; defences came down and their conversation turned to who was doing what, and who was now in prison. The guy selling the fake gear told him that he bought his stock by the container-load direct from China. He simply chose what he wanted from the manufacturers website, paid in advance and the goods arrived by ship in a couple of months. The risk of them being intercepted by HM Customs was relatively small and his markup was somewhere between 300-400%. Easy money, not much risk but he wasn't keen on getting up at 4am every Sunday!
Tom asked for the details of the website and he was assured that anything he wanted could be supplied by his contact in China. The guy produced a business card of his Chinese contact, which Tom photographed on his phone, and agreed to vouch for Tom to him so they could have a frank conversation from the outset. As soon as Tom got home he emailed the guy in China, referenced his sports-clothing mate and asked him to message him back on either of the two encrypted messaging platforms he used. Within an hour Tom was in direct contact.
Tom explained his plan; he wanted an exceptional quality and signed forgery of a painting by Mark Rothko and another by Jackson Pollock. The material used had to be age appropriate as Pollock died in a car crash in 1956 and Rothko committed suicide in 1970 so any paint that was only available after those respective dates would be a bit of a giveaway. He was going to send his contact photographs of the paintings he wanted forged. He selected photographs from the books he had collected during his research; however, rather than select clear and detailed photos, he chose those which appeared in the background of photographs taken in the artists studio. These were either slightly out of focus or viewed at an angle. This allowed the forger greater latitude and gave Tom the opportunity of 'suggesting' that the painting he was selling was indeed the same as that in the photograph. The chap in China suggested that in order to create some additional provenance, he would add a couple of partially ripped stickers on the reverse suggesting they had at some point been displayed in some (now defunct) art gallery in the US. He also boasted that his forger also perfected a method of artificially ageing the painting by placing them in a gas chamber that could cause a chemical and physical change in the paint to make it look as old as the client desired.
He agreed to pay £7,000 for each and was told that they would take 2 months to produce and get couriered to the UK. Whilst he waited, Tom began to create his back story and attract attention. He rented a vacant shop in Hipsterville and set up a pop-up art gallery. He passed the word amongst his posh arty contacts that a friend in the US had bought a considerable stock of abstract expressionist stock but now wanted to invest in Bitcoin so was liquifying his assets ie. selling his craft-less tat at a discount. He made it clear that he was only selling on behalf of his American friend and had no expert knowledge himself. He employed a well-connected guy named Hugo who claimed to be minor aristocracy to head up his website and social media campaign and waited for the calls to come in. He wasn't disappointed, in fact the response was so great he began to wonder if a 'legitimate' career in selling art might actually be an option.
The launch of the gallery went well and was attended by a couple of 'mockney' actors replete with man-bags and hangers-on. A free bar ensured that the event was well covered by the local media and online arty-farty sites. He sold nearly all of the stock and Hugo and his even posher girlfriend Amelia earned a four figure commission - everyone was happy. Tom advertised that his next sale was in a month and stock was going to be even better. The second open-evening was attended by a more mature clientele who clearly had lots of money to spend. Hugo pointed out two dealers who sold directly to either corporate clients or private collectors. Both were more Dell-Boy than anyone you would find on Antiques Roadshow, but each were believed to be subject matter experts on abstract expressionism and were not massively impressed by the paintings on display.
Tom casually mentioned that he had other stuff in the back of the shop that had just arrived from the US (rather than China!) but on the instructions of his boss in the US, he was saving these pieces for 'some Russian'. He had placed the fake Rothko behind another painting still covered in bubble-wrap but with just enough of a corner exposed to make it clear what it could be. He invited both of the dealers into the back of the shop and nonchalantly showed them a couple of unremarkable canvasses, whilst they were polite, neither could take their eyes off the 'Rothko'.
Tom said the next sale was in another month and the entire stock would have been refreshed. He ushered them back into the main gallery and handed them his business card. They necked another glass of Prosecco each and bid Tom a polite farewell. Tom only had time to instruct Hugo to begin closing up when his phone pinged with a text from the younger of the two dealers 'I need to speak to you urgently. Ring me as soon as you can please' Not wanting to appear too keen, Tom helped Hugo clear up the detritus of the evening before ringing him back.
The dealer ,'Lloyd', explained that he was sitting in his car around the corner and wanted to see one of his paintings again (no prizes for guessing which one) as a matter of urgency' Tom feigned being a bit tired but 'reluctantly' agreed to wait for him if he came around immediately. Lloyd was knocking on the door quicker than a prince could go from Hero to Zero and Tom welcomed him in. Lloyd explained that a painting in the back of the shop had caught his eye and he might have a buyer for it if he could see it again. Tom smiled and agreed to show him it to him on the understanding that (a) his boss had already promised first refusal to Russian art dealer and (b) this must be in total confidence as the painting was from the grey market as it had been used to settle a debt between two drug dealers in the US. Lloyd happily agreed.
Tom removed the bubblewrap with a total reverence and stood back to allow Lloyd to marvel at the large canvas. Tom used the silence to allow Lloyd's imagination to go into overdrive. Eventually Lloyd cracked and asked 'How much is the Russian willing to pay?' Tom said that in this case and a few others, he was simply the delivery boy and that he did not deal directly with 'certain clients'. Lloyd implored him to find out and get back to him as soon as he could, and even promised Tom 'a very nice Porsche-shaped drink' if he could make things happen. Tom insisted the painting was almost certainly already sold but he would try.
Lloyd shook him warmly by the hand, got into his bright red Porsche parked outside the gallery and drove away at a respectable speed. As he checked his phone he saw another text from 'Henry' the other dealer who had briefly seen the Rothko earlier. He too was looking for a further viewing asap. It took Tom every bit of his willpower to resist ringing Lloyd the following day - but he managed. Lloyd texted him but Tom ignored it for 24 hours then rang him back.
Tom explained that the Russian deal was now dead in the water - much like the Russian himself. The price they had agreed upon was £XX million but only after it had been authenticated. His boss was content to offer the same terms to Lloyd but he needed to move within 72 hours - Tom added a screenshot of Henry's text to increase the pressure. Lloyd appeared pleasantly surprised by the price quoted and clearly realised he could put on a few more million to his own buyer. This was the deal of a lifetime.
Tom agreed a time the following day for Lloyd to come to the gallery together with his chosen expert to authenticate the painting and also handed him the book with the page marked containing the photograph of this painting in the background. He emphasised the 72 hour window of opportunity, after which time he would be ringing his rival Henry.
His 'Rothko expert' spent over an hour examining the painting. His verdict was that this was typical of the style of the artist and appeared to be identical to that on page XX of a book detailing the life and works of Rothko. Examination revealed that the paint and pigments were commonly used by Rothko in the late 1960s and appeared consistent with the general age of the canvas. This was good enough for him and he was happy to pay the full purchase price. Tom provided him with the account details and the money was received later the same day.
A few days later, Lloyd pulled up outside the gallery just as Tom was closing up shop (for good!) and handed the keys of his red Porsche and the V5 Registration Document to him.
'I'm a man of my word and we both did well out of this - I'd already sold it before I even bought it from you. Please make sure I'm the first person you ring if you get anything at all remotely similar' Tom smiled and assured him he would.
As Tom parked the Porsche that night, he received another text from Henry asking for an update. Tom texted back ' Sorry Henry - the Rothko has gone, however, would a Jackson Pollock be of interest?????'
PS - I have redacted the price paid to avoid potentially identifying the purchaser.
PPS - For those of you thinking that Tom's adventure sounds a bit far fetched; The Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was once asked 'How many fakes do you think could possibly be on the walls?' to which he responded, 'I have no idea'