If you are in the business of selling fake art online, this is truly a golden age.

It’s especially true if you are selling images attributed to famous artists such as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, or Jean-Michel Basquiat, because in 2012, both the Basquiat Estate and the Keith Haring Foundation stopped authenticating works. To make matters more complicated, the Andy Warhol Foundation’s long-standing policy, according to a spokesperson, is that it “[does not] offer opinions on works of art purported to be by Andy Warhol.”

While it’s bad news for potential buyers, it’s great news for shady sellers. With little authority policing them, you’re basically on your own when determining if a work of art is fake or not. This is a problem across platforms like eBay, Etsy, and Amazon — all of which mostly rely on complaints to identify problem sellers. Because platforms make money on completed transactions, they have a disincentive to actively vet their art listings. Judging by the number of sales each year, these platforms may well be making hundreds of thousands if not millions each year from fees. Why on earth would they cancel those transactions?

In pursuit of passive income streams, many sellers don’t even have physical inventory — they use “print-on-demand” services like Printbest that also connect to Shopify, Etsy, and eBay, making it remarkably easy to set up an online store. A seller just needs to upload images and then promote the shop online. The platform does the rest — including the printing and mailing of the actual item. As a result, the Keith Haring “poster” you’re getting for cheap just might be a print-out.

Some scammers mislead buyers by using art terminology to make it sound like they’re selling a real painting or print when, in fact, they are not. Because intentionally selling fake and counterfeit art is illegal, most include language in their description to grant them plausible deniability in case they get caught selling fakes. Some sellers, of course, throw caution to the wind and claim outright that their item is authentic. 

Below are some examples of bogus items being sold with misleading listings.

“Prints” marketed on Etsy (all screenshots Chris Cobb/Hyperallergic)

Catalogue Pages Marketed as Prints

Unlikely as it sounds, there are quite a few low-effort sellers hoping to pass off pages taken from art books or exhibition catalogues as “vintage prints.” One such example on eBay was a since-removed “hand-signed” print of Keith Haring’s “Portrait of Grace Jones.” Based on the title alone, one would assume this is an authentic print by Haring. The photos showed the signature and a certificate of authenticity (COA). Suspiciously, though, the COA listed a date of 2002, not from the Haring Foundation but from the seller themselves. The piece was a bookplate removed from its original publication and presented to the artist for what’s known as a complimentary signature — as in “with the compliments of the artist” —  usually done for admirers, gallery owners, exhibition openings, or friends, much like an autograph. The signature as such is not from a limited-edition numbered run.

When asked to clarify its authenticity, the seller, who went by gallery-100, responded cryptically: “This type of art does not have a history to base provenance on. So therefore it is impossible to say for certain that Keith Haring signed the piece.”

I purchased the piece believing it is signed by the Hand of Keith Haring,” they added.

Yet, it’s still being offered as a vintage print signed by the artist. Or are they only claiming that the signature is real? There is no value to a COA from a seller that cannot verify the authenticity of what they are selling. The only function such a document can serve is to fool people who don’t know any better. You could take a gamble and buy it for $169.99 or best offer. (At the time, this seller was offering 83 similar book pages that we are to believe were all signed by Haring and Warhol — but with no proof.) 

Ebay’s policy clearly states that users should abstain from listing any works if they are uncertain about authenticity. Of course, eBay does not actively monitor their auction offerings, but instead relies on dealers, collectors, experts, buyers, and potential buyers to notify them of problems relating to particular works of art. Oh well.

Brazenly Fake Paintings

A purported Basquiat on eBay

Straight-up fake paintings are offered all the time in eBay auctions. In March, a purported Basquiat original was listed for $199,000 or best offer. The description was laughably vague but hit key points — notably listing the provenance of the work as “a collector who died in 2013” — without providing any evidence or proof. When asked for proof the painting was real, the seller said he had “contacted Christie’s but no luck so far, and that’s why the artwork is being listed on eBay.” Impatient with my questions, the seller stopped responding. 

“Basquiat” works sold online

The truth is that anybody can make a copy of a painting, add a fake signature, and sell it as an “original.” Another heavy-hitting seller of fakes, eBay user raulrisco0 offers, among others, fake Botero, Haring, Basquiat, and Van Gogh paintings. To his credit, when confronted about their authenticity, he responded: “I wanna be honest with you, I found these paintings in a storage, I don’t know if this is original or not.”

This response, of course, is a perfect example of wanting to maintain plausible deniability. He simultaneously admits the paintings might not be real and lets potential purchasers entertain the fantasy that they could be. Plausible deniability is a legal gray area many buyers have become accustomed to. We see it all the time on shows like Antiques Roadshow, Pawn Stars, and American Pickers, where people are celebrated for recognizing a diamond in the rough. Scammers, though, take advantage of the fact that everyone wants to win the lottery.   

Print-on-Demand Canvas Prints

One Etsy user’s shop

An Etsy user who goes by canvasgallerytr sold images advertised as the work of Banksy and Haring, among others. All canvas “prints” are available in sizes from 8 by 12 ($30) all the way to 38 by 63 inches ($237). When I wrote to the user and asked if the works were real, and if they were an authorized or licensed dealer, they replied: “I make high resolution images on the internet. Keith has given permission to reproduce the photos on his site. My customers are very satisfied with the products.”

The seller appears to be based in Turkey, but the Haring Foundation’s website clearly states that the Keith Haring Studio owns the international copyright to all works created by the artist, and “his artwork may not be reproduced in any way without express written permission from the Haring Studio.” Needless to say, it’s highly unlikely Keith Haring gave this user permission to produce unlimited printed canvas prints of his work to sell on Etsy for next to nothing.

In cases like these, the injury here is not to the buyer, but to the owners of the rights to Haring’s work. When unscrupulous sellers steal the work of artists, they are taking money out of the pocket of the artists, or in this instance, the Keith Haring Studio.

Exhibition Poster Reproductions

Many sellers reprint exhibition posters.

Similarly to purveyors of print-on-demand Haring canvases, Etsy seller LaCedilleQuiSourit offers several pages of reproductions of famous exhibition posters. When I asked about a classic poster published by the Whitney Museum, the Etsy seller responded by trying to bribe me with a free print:

“Hi — as stated everywhere on the site, these are facsimiles that I rescue, digitize, retouch, and share. If you’re interested in the file for printing yourself, let me know and I’ll happily send it to you with no strings attached and free of charge; this project is more about sharing with other enthusiasts than anything else!”

Despite this user’s apparent passion for the concept of democratizing access to art, they charge for the copies. Depending on size, posters range in cost from $22.45 to $57.68. In most cases, it is not legal to reprint copyrighted works without permission of the copyright holder — even if you state that they are copies. In fact, there is a name for this practice: piracy.

The Shill Bidding Scam

Because eBay allows completely private bidding, it makes the practice of shill bidding difficult to detect. “Shill bidding” is when a dishonest seller uses numerous accounts to make it appear as though multiple people are bidding on an item. When a potential buyer sees that bidders are competing for a work of art, this fabricated interest gives it an air of legitimacy and authenticity.

With a fake account, a seller can win their own auction for a low price — and even leave themselves positive feedback! Unfortunately, eBay’s policy on shill bidding is also hands-off:

“If you think that another member is shill bidding, you don’t need to report it to us. eBay has a number of systems in place to detect and monitor bidding patterns and practices. If we identify any malicious behavior, we’ll take steps to prevent it,” reads a statement on the company’s website.

At the end of the day, the art auction system is designed to make money, not lose money. The major auction houses and marketplaces tend to be more meticulous in their approach to vetting sellers, but even then — unless someone can prove that something is real, remember to ask questions and do your own research. As always — buyer beware!

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Chris Cobb

Chris Cobb is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn. He studied Art and Politics at the San Francisco Art Institute and UC Berkeley. He has written for the Believer Magazine, SFMOMA's Open Space magazine,...

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