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Jan. 6 2010 - 5:27 pm | 787 views | 0 recommendations | 16 comments

Selling Fake Art on eBay

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A Chicago man named Michael Zabrin recently admitted he sold fake Picassos, Lichtensteins, Chagalls, and works by several other artists on eBay. He plead guilty in court, saying that he had stolen over $1 million from unaware online buyers. His trick was simple. He would buy fine art prints from sources in Italy and Spain and then re-sell them on eBay as originals for many times what he paid. In total, he duped more than 250 people into purchasing these reproductions through his online selling companies, Fineartmasters and ZFineartmasters. The charge he plead guilty to is mail fraud, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a maximum of a $250,000 fine. Prosecutors in the case estimate that Zabrin will more realistically face 10-13 years in prison. The sentence and the case are all too reminiscent of the story of Ken Fetterman and Kenneth Walton, two Seattle residents who paved the way for art fraud on eBay in the mid- to late-90s.

The problem is that art fraud on eBay still exists in the post-Fetterman/Walton era, and most likely it is more prevalent than we know. The question is why does it still exist, and, as Zabrin’s case points out, how is it able to occur on such a large scale? Selling fraudulent tchotchkes is one thing, but selling forged original works by modern art masters is quite another. To sell art on the Internet, it takes three parties to complete the transaction. A seller. A buyer. And eBay’s part, which is essentially a third party mediator that takes a cut of the sale. The sad fact of the matter is that there will always be neophyte art buyers who are vulnerable to art scams on eBay, and there will always be sellers who are willing to cater to that ignorance. These are unchangeable factors in the online art selling game on eBay. This is where eBay itself comes in. As the conduit through which the art is sold, eBay should be playing more of a role in stemming fake art sales. What about background checks on some of its suspicious sellers, especially those selling fine and rare works of art? If the folks at eBay had done a little research, they might have discovered that Michael Zabrin had been convicted of telephone harassment, mail fraud, and retail theft in the past. Though these offenses should not exclude anyone from selling on eBay, this mixed with the material he was selling should have sent up a few red flags.

I realize that many accredited and certified art galleries do sell authentic work on eBay, but then there are these few sentences from the AP article announcing the guilty plea:

When some customers realized they had bought fakes, they returned them. Zabrin acknowledged that he then waited a few months and resold them to someone else.”

An eBay seller is successful based on his or her rating or trustworthiness and customer satisfaction, much like an Amazon.com seller. If customers were returning these Picassos and Lichtensteins as forgeries, how was this charade able to continue for what appears to be several years? Zabrin was only caught in March 2008 and he claims to have bought fake Chagalls as far back as 2004.  It reeks of a lapse in seller oversight by eBay. But the question is, does eBay bare any actual responsibility? I’d like to think that in all the distance the Internet came from 2004 to 2008 eBay stepped up its security measures enough to catch Zabrin earlier, but it appears not. In terms of legal repercussions, eBay has nothing to worry about. Since they post a series of rules and regulations on their site outlining what can be sold and what cannot, they have wiped their hands clean of any part in this mess.

At risk of shining even a little bit of humor on this situation, perhaps this is what Zabrin was reading and taking notes from when he began his scam.

via Chicago man admits he sold bogus Picassos on eBay.


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  1. collapse expand

    Wow. Hard to get my head around this…buyer beware is one thing but prints for fine art? They should be fining the buyers for stupidity, hey Google anyone?

    There are actually some pretty good to excellent forgeries that I would buy…real brush strokes and gobs of oil, as in a Van Gogh, make a real difference. These guys could make a good profit selling something beyond prints.

    • collapse expand

      libtree,

      There is some blame to be put on the buyers here, I agree. But that will always be the case. Same with the sellers, we can blame them. The one who escapes blame here who deserves a little is eBay. If Amazon.com was allowing someone to sell fake signed copies of rare books, they should take some of the blame as well. This also makes art dealers who do sell legitimately on eBay look bad. They have to work that much harder now.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        That comment about Amazon is interesting because like EBay they do use outside booksellers and private parties…they may indeed be selling or at least allowing sellers with first editions to perhaps add a phony signature.

        This forgery angle is nothing new there are cases where suspected forgeries are hanging in museums and deliciously a forger who specialized in screwing the high stepping Nazis.

        Tons of fake Pre-Columbian art are out there but on the internet on site like ebay how can you possibly police thousands of entries.

        Perhaps a serious buyer be aware section on the basis on certificates of authenticity or chain of titles or making sellers identify the art as watercolor, acrylics, charcoals and oil. And of course prints as prints. Or at least warn people to google the art and find out where the hell it is hanging.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    thanks for shedding some light on this.
    i belong to a community of artists online
    ( my site is here: http://www.madbaumer37.deviantart.com )
    where many people have reported their works being sold as prints by art thieves.
    it’s hard enough for an artist to try to make a living from their craft, it’s intolerable to watch some talentless unimaginative incubus try to make a buck off of it.

  3. collapse expand

    It will never end; hood winkers, scum, thieves, you name it; they will do anything for a quick dollar. Be aware always….

    http://cliveshome.blogspot.com

  4. collapse expand

    This cases eBay attributes bears striking similarity to the case of Japanese artist Hajime Sorayama V. Tamara Bane Gallery (owned by Robert Bane and Tamara Feuer-Bane). This case was reported in the LA Times in between the 2007 federal court trial and bankruptcy. In this case, that has dragged on for years in Chapter 7, Bane et al committed numerous art and financial frauds including embezzling. Like, Salander art frauds, Bane and his wife live a lavish lifestyle in a Beverly Hills compound and there is extensive first class traveling abroad. The art fraudsters really know how to abuse the system in particular the courts’ process that they cut holes in.

    eBay and the internet are extensively used even today (despite court injunction) to dump and to market forgeries that originate at / by Bane et al and his printer of giclees. eBay has not stopped the main sources of the dumping nor forgery although they have started an investigation and some banning of accounts after VeRo reports starting in year 2004.

    • collapse expand

      Jahn,

      Thanks for your very informative post about this matter. I was not familiar with the Sorayama v. Bane case, but I am quite familiar with the Salander case. Though he was not accused of selling fake art, rather he was selling the art to many people at once, and selling other people’s art without permission. Given that the Internet is so used for selling fake art, what do you think can be done to curb this usage?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    There are a number of things to curb eBay / internet usage for these art frauds. The internet/eBay is just as powerful in preventing it as aiding the art frauds.

    Well the eBay UK model seems to have established a method that helps as I understand it. Artists works are paid a percent fee that goes to artist. This small fee to the artist insures that artist can easily track who is selling works. One can take this a step further.

    Laws concerning galleries / publishers are on the books to be enforced. Certain weaknesses exist where problems like fake art or forgery etc get their start. For example, “consignment” is a time honored way for dealers / galleries to sell pieces (often possessing them) so here is a point where it could be more than a civil matter but also deemed a crime. In the USA this requires someone with VARA understanding putting such a petition to legislature to update the laws of consignment. With regard to fakes, counterfeits, forgeries I think there are laws but often the courts do not fully understand. At this point an artist / lawyer must be proficient in title 17, VARA, forgery and counterfeiting to explain it to Judges.

    The few bad apples in the industry that know these weaknesses exploit them abusing the court system. Take a look at this link if you have time and edit / contribute, letting artists and collectors know is best.

    http://knol.google.com/k/john-piek/art-sorayama-v-tamara-bane-gallery-and/kjfkjt6lasvi/1#

  6. collapse expand

    The matter posted above dated 1/09/10 has been mutually settled to the satisfaction of all parties and registered as such in the federal courts. This is to kindly request the removal of all related comments.

  7. collapse expand

    The above 2 posts dated 01/09/10 is requested to be removed because this matter has been mutually settled to the satisfaction of all parties.

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    About Me

    I am a Brooklyn-based writer and editor covering arts and culture. I was an editor at Art & Antiques magazine, an editor at Picador USA, and an editor for a magazine about coffee and tea. On the best of days, I get to write about art, or work on fiction. My writing can be found on the Huffington Post, The Rumpus, and in Art & Antiques, Art in America, Tin House, Willamette Week, San Francisco magazine, Food Network Magazine, and Fresh Cup magazine. I also write about and promote the arts for Columbia University in New York.

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    An essay on the painter Robert Vickrey for The Rumpus.