Greedy or plain guliable?: ‘If-it-is-too-good-to-be-true, it-is-too-good-to-be-ture’ in the art market….

Singapore-based ‘art-dealer’, Tong Djoe has been forced to refund S$300,000 to a buyer (click ‘here‘ for the case). A China-born Dr Baumann had paid him for 19 paintings and one woodcarving, which she later argued are fakes. I’ve seen his collections before, and Tong Djoe, at his best, is a dealer with questionable tastes….

Among the paintings she bought were those from ‘Walter Spies, Xu Beihong, R Bonnet, Chen Yifei and Hendra Gunawan’….

Even on a bad day, a single mediocre – but authentic – painting by Spies, or Beihong, or Bonnet, or Yifei, or Gunawan, would fetch a 6-figure sum on its own. This lady willingly paid only S$300,000 for not one, not two, but 19 of these paintings?????

In another case in Singapore, a buyer bought what he thought was a one-off ‘Thinker’ by Auguste Rodin for US$1,000,000 but it turned out to be one of many replicas on sale (click ‘here‘ for the case). He tried to sue Opera gallery for the ‘fraud’ but the defense lawyer summed it up the best with his question to David Eng the buyer: “Were you seriously thinking that for 1 million U.S. dollars, you were going to get an original Rodin?”

That is the trouble with the nouveau riche trying to gain some old-money credibility by spending money on art; many of them know close to nothing about art, and everyday, in every corner of the world, they shell out good money for what they believe to be ‘good-buys’ in art that turn out to be as real as a live dodo. Buying art is not like buying an apartment; you know that the apartment is ‘real’ and you can inspect it closely for poor workmanship and study the yield-potential before buying. But with art-investment, in most cases you can never know what is ‘real’ and you will never know how much you can sell it off for in a few years.

And even when you ‘think’ you are buying a ‘real’ artwork for a bargain, think again. Let me share a candid story about buying Indonesian art.

A famous artists who has passed away was very prolific. However, many paintings were not well-documented before they were sold or given away. So, today, there must be thousands of paintings around that are purportedly executed by him. Many ‘fakes’ have appeared in the market, and it is very hard to believe anyone who says that the one he is selling is the real stuff.

To make things worse, his family is also milking his fame. On good authority, I was told by not one but a few art dealers, collectors and curators that the painter’s daughter would ‘authenticate’ any of her father’s painting for a 5-figure sum in US$. For the money, she would certify that the painting – real or not – was indeed from her father’s workshop. But considering that his art normally sells for 5-  to 6-figures in US$, paying for a certificate of authenticity seems to make business sense.

So, a word of advice for art collectors who are not art-savvy: Buy what you like, for a price that you think it is fair. If you do that, regardless of whether the artwork is real or fake, you not only paid what you think is a good price for it but you also get to enjoy it as it hangs in your home or office. If you are planning to invest, do you homework, make some friends who are in the know, and be good-natured enough to accept that the fakes that you will inevitably buy – despite your vigilance – are part and parcel of the steep learning curve in art-investment. Otherwise, invest in an apartment la……

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