Forgers and Forgeries

A good forger can create forgeries that can escape detection for decades. Even centuries.

People collect a lot of things. Not just postage stamps, coins, dolls, and baseball cards, but also archaeological artifacts, antiques, autographs, and paintings. The rarer the item, of course, the more it will fetch on the open market and in public auctions. And that is all the encouragement operators of forgery scams need to pay an artisan to forge such items and attempt to sell them as originals.

Not all forgers, of course, succeed. Some of their work is so inferior that a professional vendor can identify it immediately. Or even an amateur collector. But there are “professional” forgers whose creations are so good that they make their way to the market without being detected. Ultimately, what usually happens is that the forgery is exposed years, even decades later. Someone eventually may notice a minor flaw. New historical research may reveal that it couldn’t have been an original. Or the police pick up the scammer or one of his associates for an unrelated reason. To get off easy, they agree to spill the beans and cooperate with the authorities.  

Ancient Artifacts

If you have no previous experience in purchasing an ancient artifact, the odds are that you will be scammed.

There very well may be more forgeries on the market than originals. You stand a good chance, therefore, of buying a forgery even if the seller is reputable and advertises that it’s real. Even the ancient Romans produced replicas of even more ancient Greek statues. Complicating the matter is that there are many cases in which the world’s leading experts cannot agree on whether a specific artifact is real or fake.

Biblical-Era Forgery Scams

When it opened in 2017, the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. proudly included in its permanent displays a collection of 16 pieces of parchment that were said to have been among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in caves above the seashore in 1947. A year later five were found to have been modern forgeries. The remainder were found to have been fakes as well in 2019, although the leather they were written on was indeed of ancient origin. 

The most famous example of a purported biblical-era forgery, however, is probably the so-called James Ossuary, which was unveiled to the world in 1982. An ossuary is a stone box in which the bones of the deceased were deposited after the body decomposed. They were commonly used in Judea for the wealthy and elite in Jesus’s time. What made this one unique was its inscription. It identified it as the ossuary as containing the bones of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

And unique means unique. Only one other inscription on a first-century Jewish ossuary mentions a brother of the deceased. Moreover, a statistical analysis of the distribution of names among Jews in Jerusalem in the first century estimated that it was unlikely there was anyone else in the city at the time named James who was the son of someone named Joseph and the brother of someone named Jesus.

Everyone agreed that the ossuary was indeed genuine and dated from the first century. But was the inscription real? World leading experts in the fields of ancient inscriptions, ancient handwriting and patina (the coloration that develops over time inside the surface of a stone – and in this case, in the inscription) investigated it. Their findings were inconclusive. Some believed the inscription was original. Others claimed it was most likely a forgery. Ultimately, the issue reached an Israeli court, which declined to rule one way or the other.

Forged Antiques

Viewers of at least one episode of Pawn Stars, the American reality TV series that appears on History (formerly The History Channel), know that some of the antiques that innocent collectors bring into the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas are not authentic. Usually, they belong to people who purchased them at yard sales, open-air markets abroad or online on eBay and Craigslist. Needless to say, these venues are awash with forged antiques. If an antique doesn’t come with a provenance, or certificate of authenticity, there’s no proof it’s an original. That’s a red light.    

For scammers, there’s a big advantage in selling a forged antique online. They can disappear without a trace immediately after they mail it to the buyer. And they can do so from a post office far away from home to disguise their location too.

Forged Autographs

It’s much the same thing with forgery scams that focus on autographs. So much so that one eBay blogger advises that “most (80-90%) of all autographs on eBay are fakes.” Even if he’s exaggerating by 50 percent, that means that anywhere between 40 and 45 percent of them are forgeries.

The real tragedy is that it’s relatively easy to avoid purchasing fake autographs. Do not even consider purchasing an autograph if it does not come with a certificate of authenticity (COA) issued by a recognized professional authentication firm. As an extra precaution, contact the firm to verify that it indeed did issue the certificate, since a COA can easily be forged as well.

Another veteran eBay blogger, an autograph dealer himself, warns:

“There are many sellers who are only offering “copies’ of the original signed photo, which are of course worthless, but their careful wording hides this fact. Check out the seller as much as you can, and don’t take risks with your money (always use PayPal). If an item seems too good to be true, then you can be pretty damn sure that its [sic] a fake, so don’t take chances.”    

Forged Masterpieces

The really big money, however, may involves forgery scams dealing in fake masterpieces. How widespread are they? Consider this: In January 2018, 20 out of 21 purported works by Modigliani featured at an exposition in Genoa, Italy were later determined to be forgeries. What is ironic is that Hungarian painter Elmyr de Hory, the forger of these works and thousands of others, became a celebrity through his forgeries. In 2014, one of his Matisse fakes sold for $28,000.

It’s no consolation, of course, but while it may be relatively easy for a novice collector to be fooled into buying a fake masterpiece, the fact is that veteran art connoisseurs and major dealers can be as well. So, by the way, was the Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering, who amassed a huge collection of stolen art during World War II. Goering traded 137 real Dutch masterpieces he looted from the Netherlands for a fake Vermeer painted by an otherwise local pedestrian forger named Han van Meegeren who may very well be the most prolific forger of the 20th century.

In November 2011, a venerable Upper East Side gallery in New York City, founded in 1846, suddenly closed down when it became clear it was the victim of a huge forgery scam. Over the course of the previous 15 years it had sold 40 fake paintings attributed to top American artists, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. It transpired that the fakes were instead created by Pei-Shen Qian, a talented Chinese forger who was working in Queens. He claimed he knew nothing of the scam but returned to China once he was identified. Two of his three handlers who directed the scam, which netted millions in profits from the gallery’s sales to collectors, fled to their native Spain. Only the third was brought to justice. Related court proceedings regarding monetary settlements with scammed collectors dragged on to 2019. 

While art forgeries are nothing new, the glut of forgeries on today’s market is the direct result of the rapid rise in the prices of genuine masterpieces. The frenzy began in 1987, when an original Van Gogh sold for £24.75 million. That tripled the previous record for a painting, which was £8.1 million paid just two years earlier. The jump coincided with massive acquisitions undertaken by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles using the $1.2 billion endowment it inherited from its benefactor in 1982. The knowledge that the Getty could purchase anything it wanted drove up counter offers from the only others who could afford to compete – a relatively small number of people who happen to be the wealthiest art collectors on the planet. For them, money doesn’t really matter.

If you think you’ve been the victim of a forgery scam, contact the fund recovery experts at MyChargeBack.