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A Law Firm's Primer On How To Avoid Acquiring Fake Art

Fred Clark and Alexander Martinelli, 2 September 2020

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As more fine art is sold online - accelerated by the pandemic - the risk of people buying fakes or works of dubious provenance is greater than ever. The law firm Boodle Hatfield shares advice on how to avoid getting into trouble.

We have covered a number of topics about fine art during August and continue to do so. The general public remains fascinated by art fakes and fraudsters. Even films use art forgery as a plot theme (think about the Pierce Brosnan/Rene Russo film, The Thomas Crown Affair, for example). TV programmes featuring art and antiques remind us about the dangerous allure of fake art. So, at a time when there is a lot of political talk about “fake news”, fake art is worth a look. High net worth individuals who want to buy art, or use their art as collateral for lending, will want to ensure that their works are legitimate.

How to avoid crooks and fakes? In this article, Fred Clark, associate and Alexander Martinelli, trainee solicitor, at Boodle Hatfield, a practice which offers expertise in art law, consider how to steer clear of trouble. The editors are pleased to share these views and invite responses. The usual caveats apply. Email tom.burroughes@wealthbriefing.com and jackie.bennion@clearviewpublishing.com


How can art buyers reduce the risk of fraud when buying online?
The normal rules apply to the purchase of art online, namely: stick to well-known sites, check reviews and Trustpilot ratings of new sites, look for the social media presence of any particular artists (particularly if these are relatively unknown) and make sure to use a credit card (with payment protection) for online purchases. Where you are buying through another party or website online, check how they verified the seller's information and whether they have seen (or, preferably, are storing and have certified) the work of art.

If you are buying directly from an artist, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and learn more about them directly, suggest a video call (on your preferred platform). See if this matches the information on their website.

Crucially, make sure that the purchase is documented in a legally binding contract or in the absence of that, that there is some other form of paper such as an invoice.

Five warning signs when buying art online
1. A website has a lot of advertising and pop-ups. Legitimate art sales websites are almost always well-designed and of high quality. A poor-quality website is a red flag for a potential scam.

2. Reviews for the website or artist are poorly written and the reviewers have near-identical usernames. Fraudsters commonly post fake reviews online but the names and reviews are often very similar, which should raise your suspicions.

3. Insecure websites without HTTPS encryption (your browser will show a lock with a red line through it to the left of the URL) or that are flagged as insecure by your browser. Every major website should use HTTPS in 2020.

4. The artist(s)/website arrived out of the blue. If they say you have a contact in common make sure to check with them – this sort of information can be easy for fraudsters to find from social media, for example.

5. The seller has no terms and conditions on their website and is averse to documenting the agreement in a sales contract or invoice. There is never a good reason for a sale not to be documented properly.

Will coronavirus be the tipping point for online sales?
The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the uptake of online art purchases, through #artistssupportpledge, for example. However, one question on people's minds remains: will the old status quo return when the pandemic ends? This thinking, normally discussed in the context of the work/life balance and home working, also applies in the context of online art buying.

Large galleries are increasingly turning to online art shows and events which connect with art fans virtually. A recent example was the Tate holding a virtual 'Tate Lates' event during the lockdown.

Sotheby's and Christie's have been offering online auctions for several years at this point, but sellers using the auction houses are likely to be less wary about selling online now that it is the key channel for art sales. We are likely to see big ticket pieces appearing at these virtual events. 

There have been landmark sales taking place recently with the broadcast of live, socially distanced auctions online, enabling the major auction houses to sell objects in London, New York and Hong Kong in one sale. Still, there will always be some wariness about the reality gap between seeing art on a computer and seeing it in real life, especially when large sums of money are involved.

We anticipate that there will always be room for in-person auctions and real-world galleries. Online auctions and art shows cannot supplant the desire to see a Rembrandt close-up, no matter how high the resolution of the digital scan. Curated online experiences can open the art world up to a greater audience, and expanding access to art is vital; however, the sensory experience of visiting a gallery is almost as important as the work of art itself.

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