Tags: Art | Forgeries

Beware the Illegitimate Art Agent

By Monday, 11 August 2014 01:55 PM Current | Bio | Archive

A well-informed collector usually tries to do business with those who are known for being honest, fair and astute. He or she understands there always is more to uncover and discern.

As scientific advances and information are discovered, authenticated paintings often are discredited and forgeries are reclaimed as authentic works of art. Little is absolute. It can be difficult to know whose opinion is valid in the art world. During the last decade, some museum curators have been discredited because masterworks with falsified histories have been found in their museum collections or have been identified as stolen Nazi war loot from WWII.

Accurate expertise is invaluable when millions of dollars are on the line or when certain individuals will do anything to acquire or sell art. Museum competition is brutal. Curators often look the other way when lenders loan, gift or sell questionable paintings because their goal is to woo potential donors, not disgruntle them.

That mentality can be disastrous.

In February 2001, Bob Jackman in the article “Yale Acknowledges Possibility of Nazi Looted Art” (Antiques & the Arts Weekly, 2/2/01, pp. 58-59) alleges Yale accepted 17 artworks valued at $3 million from an ex-Nazi storm trooper — without scrutinizing the art’s history.

Slovenly scholarship is not justifiable.

Museum curators are experts in some aspect of the arts, but they often act as art advisors-dealers for collectors — that is a conflict of interest. Most museum bylaws clearly state curators are not allowed to pose as private agent-dealers or take finder or appraisal fees.

However, many highly educated, exceedingly powerful, revered museum curators clandestinely are agents for wealthy collectors, calling themselves dealers in the trade, do not pay sales tax when they purchase art for themselves, and earn substantial amounts of money for their advice.

Affluent donors and their omnipotent museum curator-agents control entire segments of the art world by virtue of money and power. Donors often select curators to hunt and barter for art on their behalves, because they believe erroneously that curators are more art-wise and knowledgeable than leading art dealers. They usually are not.

If a dealer does not offer a museum curator a commission or does not cooperate with or please a curator who acts as an agent-to-the-rich, the curator commonly tarnishes the dealer’s credibility by making derisive remarks to affluent collectors and museum insiders.

If a dealer plays the graft game, dubious paintings often are authenticated by museum curators and are sold to donor-collectors for huge profits. Pliable dealers are allowed to lend art to important, well-advertised museum exhibitions, causing the unethical dealer’s paintings to go up in value and sell more quickly. Because no viable museum exhibits art for sale, curators often pitch to top collectors the desirability and possible availability of paintings lent to a museum exhibit.

Without the museum knowing, the curator earns a sizable commission, if an artwork sells.

Many art dealers are reputable experts but if someone offers the moon, make sure he or she has a tall enough ladder. If you’d buy land on the sun, con artists will want to sell art to you. A reputable art dealer puts clients’ interests first and buys, takes on consignment and sells art from a gallery or studio exhibition space — guaranteeing as authentic the art represented.

Dealers usually make larger profits on art they own. Consignments reflect a 25 percent plus dealer commission. A 33 1/3 percent-50 percent commission usually is earned on a living painter’s work.

An art agent finds art for wealthy collectors and investors. Usually their clients do not have the time, aptness, or confidence to buy art on their own — or they want someone else to take responsibility for errors. Agents usually are not directly affiliated with art galleries or auction-houses, although they have business relationships with them. Agents often are not qualified art experts. Some earn a yearly stipend from clients, while others charge a commission fee for each item they find and sell to a client.

Without a client’s knowledge, unethical agents, who charge clients high fees for their services, force dealers to pay them a 10 percent-25 percent commission for art they sell to clients. The agent’s clients do not know the agent will not show them paintings if a seller refuses to pay an outrageously high commission under the table.

Wealthy, well-heeled art agents jet set to London, Paris, Aspen, New York, Nantucket, the Hamptons, Miami, or Palm Beach to mingle with the rich and famous, hook them as new clients, or take on consignment their valuables. Many predatory smooth talkers network through posh parties, fundraisers and social functions with the goal to meet the most naïve moguls with whom they can make slam-dunk deals. Because they need hundreds of thousands of dollars to create the impression they are accustomed to the high life, they often will do anything to sell for over-inflated prices, poorly painted art, reproductions, and fakes identified as masterworks or a must-have.

Their clients generally have little art expertise, making it easy for the merciless to take advantage of them.

Some dealers offer gluttonous agents enormous fees to sell to prosperous clients forgeries that the dealers do not want to represent directly. The agents agree to advise clients to buy the fakes, only if dealers promise to pay them hefty commissions in cash.

Many agents climb social ladders and join golf and yacht clubs to find wealthy art novices. The more charming and charismatic their social abilities, the more new socialites and tycoons befriend them — the more questionable deals are consummated. They dupe unsophisticated, impulsive buyers in elite subcultures and they realize the showiest art dazzles.

The visually impaired lead the blind in these sad cases, and some of the wealthiest buyers keep paying premium prices for near worthless art because they don’t know any better.

Given gauche compliments and told a few convincing half-truths or lies, the inexperienced believe deception when it is wrapped in designer clothing.

Some are so hungry for a compliment, when bird crap falls on their shoulder they take it as a pat on the back. That kind of need for attention causes devious agents to swoop in for the kill. Art agents commonly talk about their richest clients being easily bamboozled and pillaged by overt flattery, sex and shocking gossip meant only for their ears.

Because so many of the highborn confide in chit chatty agents who pose as friends, lovers and experts, a socialite’s expert rarely is required to present a résumé.

It is assumed that anyone who makes it into a wealthy person’s social echelon has to be legitimate. Many who flaunt affluence cannot tell a fake from an original in art or human beings; unqualified agents parade as experts and spend other people’s fortunes for paintings and antiques that often are misrepresented and over-inflated in price.

A wise art buyer demands an agent sign a notarized declaration he or she does not earn or take compensation from sellers to close a sale or to finalize a purchase on his or her behalf.

Any art agent or advisor who refuses to sign such a document should not be trusted.
He or she probably takes commissions from both sides of transactions.

Auction-house curators who act as private dealers or agents usually do so without their bosses knowing it, because it is a direct conflict of interest that often results in major losses for auction-houses. Most corrupted auction curators meet prospective buyers and sellers on auction-house premises, convincing people to consign, sell or buy directly through them personally, instead of with their auction-house. These curators demand steep commissions from both sides of a transaction and their business practices are illegal.

Thousands of forgeries and stolen objects are sold yearly by leading auction-houses, yet naïve buyers and sellers incorrectly think all auction curators who work for rich firms are honest, or they erroneously believe curators know more about art than seasoned dealers.

Why trust an auction curator who breaks corporation bylaws?

If they willingly defy corporate rules, or if they demand commissions from a consignor and a buyer, they most likely commit other moneymaking crimes. Anyone who selects this kind of person as an art agent is an imbecile. Dishonest auction curators virtually steal potential sales, purchases and commission fees from the auction-houses employing them. For those reasons and more, it is not advisable to have an auction curator act as a private agent or seller of art.

Their dealing expertise should be used exclusively within the auction setting.

Despite their claims of expertise, interior decorators, or designers, who act as art agents or dealers commonly have little to no real knowledge about what constitutes a fine painting; most of them cannot tell the difference between a blatant forgery and an authentic work of art. Their primary concern is to create a charming visual ambiance inside a client’s home or office. They usually seek colorful paintings that match wallpaper or drapes and have little genuine interest in the quality or true market value of art.

If they can charge an astronomical price and get it, they usually do.

The majority of decorators do not have the experience required to select, appraise or evaluate art without a reputable dealer’s assistance.

When an interior decorator finds art for a client in a gallery, he or she often demands that a 10 percent-40 percent fee be added to a seller’s asking price. At that inflated number the art is offered to the interior decorator’s trusting clients. If those who are decorating would go directly to prestigious art galleries to select artwork, they would save 10 percent-40 percent in hidden commission fees, and probably would purchase finer art.

Personal curators for individuals or corporations wield power by virtue of the affluent people they represent and the funds they control. Although they rarely have vast art knowledge, they do have the advantage of supervising the art-buying budget of extremely prosperous individuals or companies and they can legitimately negotiate sales of expensive art.

Be leery when a dealer or agent uses too much pressure to make a sale, applauds a promotion that tries to exalt fluff to gold, says excessive restoration is normal, claims having no provenance makes no difference, something is worth nine times more than the asking price, or demands your buying loyalty.

If a sale’s pitch sounds too good to be true, it usually is, with rare exception.

Be suspicious when an agent or dealer slanders or says something derogatory about another seller, especially if he or she knows you deal with or respect the person who is being verbally abused.

One of the most valuable assets a person has is a credible reputation.

Any doubt placed upon it can tarnish, annihilate or ruin a person’s career and ability to earn a living. True professionals encourage clients to look for art wherever they go.
Beware those who bash others.

It’s usually self-serving. If a pushy dealer tries to control or manipulate, buy elsewhere.

When a collector-investor acts as a company’s art advisor, the self-proclaimed advisor finds authentic art for the firm at a good buy and believes it will escalate in value. If the advisor buys a partnership share of the art, it can be construed as a conflict of interest. A wise corporate advisor’s art suggestions should have the purpose of enhancing the work environment and give a company the opportunity to buy fine examples of art that have the potential of escalating in value. If the art is used to decorate corporate offices, or is an aspect of a firm’s promotional or advertising objectives, a graduated tax deduction, or a depreciation of value often applies. However, when the art is purchased for potential financial gain, those deductions usually are not applicable.

Any individual that hangs fine examples of art makes a statement about his or her worldliness, education, class, mental ability, judgment and taste. An art investment portfolio can strengthen business and personal relationships because it suggests or gives the impression the person who selected or owns the art is successful, competent, discriminating, thoughtful, broad minded, and stylish.

First impressions make an impact.

An executive office or home with empty walls or with $50 prints hanging is not as elegant or as successful-looking as an environment adorned with magnificent paintings by renowned artists.

Homes and offices are where the esteemed put their best feet forward.

An art collection imparts stature and reflects who we are intellectually, psychologically, aesthetically, philosophically, religiously and emotionally, while at the same time it can serve as a secure, lucrative financial investment.

Patricia Jobe Pierce is a freelance writer, art historian, art dealer-consultant, certified AAA appraiser, public speaker, photographer and American art authenticator for museums, auction houses and collectors. She graduated from Boston University with a BFA in 1965, is owner and director of Pierce Galleries, Inc. in Nantucket and Hingham, Mass., and is author of many works, including, "Art Collecting & Investing: The Inner Workings and the Underbelly of the Art World." For more of her submissions, Click Here Now.

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Accurate expertise is invaluable when millions of dollars are on the line or when certain individuals will do anything to acquire or sell art.
Art, Forgeries
Monday, 11 August 2014 01:55 PM
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