The Art Market in a Muck

NOVEMBER 05, 2014
Shirley Mueller, MD
If buying a fake piece of art can happen to Steve Martin, the actor and clearly a high-profile individual, why can’t it happen to you and me? 
 
The back of the Chinese plate I purchased and sent back.
 
According to many experts, 50% of the art on the market is fake. This gives us a moment for pause. One issue is whether high-net-worth individuals ($30 million and above) are really improving their overall asset positon by including art as a small percentage of their investment portfolios. Another is whether it is safe for the rest of us to be buying art at all. Or, yet another consideration, should we just not care and purchase what we can afford and like?

Hope Springs Eternal
Recently I purchased a blue and white Chinese plate said to be made around the year 1600. When I acquired it from a dealer located in a major capital city abroad I was already a bit suspicious. To me the blue coloration was off and the design on the large plate was less than traditional. Still, I needed it for an exhibit I was planning and wanted the plate to be as it was described—made around and about 1600. So, I talked with the dealer to discuss my concerns. I was told the color was not true in the photography and literally, “Not to worry.” Being more optimistic than prudent, in part since I had dealt with this dealer before and trusted him and his partner, I chose to buy the plate for the projected exhibit.

When the 16 ½-inch dish arrived, however, I could see immediately that my worse fear was realized. It looked and felt fake. Later, this was confirmed in several ways. An expert who wrote a book on the subject and travels to China often (which means she sees Chinese fakes being made at their origin) wrote me the equivalent in an email, “Run, don’t walk, away from this one.” Another expert who also wrote a book about Kraak, the name of the decoration on the piece, sent me an email comprising 3 paragraphs as to why it wasn’t authentic. To top it all off, a scientist was visiting my home when the piece arrived and his analytic method, 500x microscopy, left little to no doubt that it was fake.

Burst my Bubble
Like tulip mania in the 17th Century in Holland, my bubble was burst. After this, my priority was to send the object back to the dealer and hopefully he would return my payment. Of course, I had to stand shipping costs back – about $615 – no small change. The cost was even higher when worry, stress, and time are added to the mix.

So, going back to the original paragraph, I remember hearing a Christie’s executive speak at an investment conference many years ago. He said, “Buy what you like rather than for investment.”

This still holds true, and perhaps even more so since fakes are more prevalent than ever.
 
For Further Reading:
Antiques, Auction Houses and Your Portfolio
The Chinese are Buying (They’re Just Not Paying!)
Financial Fiascos: Choose Certainty Over Uncertainty
Art and Lots of Money: What to know
 



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