Selling Fake Art on eBay
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.