Here’s a little test of your social anxiety. You’re on Main Street in East Hampton (You failed already! Just kidding), window-shopping, and you see an art gallery. You’re not an art connoisseur, but you know what you like and you’ve been known to spend on it. This gallery is no gewgaw emporium for hapless tourists but a handsomely shabby place with oriental rugs and a radio playing the Trout Quintet. The owner, a charmingly rumpled bohemian type, offers you a mug of lapsang souchong. When one of the objets piques your interest—an earthy Jackson Pollock sketch for the surprisingly affordable price of $2,000—you decide to go for it.
Suddenly the charmingly rumpled dealer starts speaking a language you barely understand, using terms like “catalogue raisonné” and “provenance,” which you haven’t heard since Intro to Modernism. Does art have the same rules as purchasing a car or a house, you wonder? Would it be tacky to ask about the sketch’s history? Have you already exposed your inexperience by buying a Pollock in the first place? And, really, could you get ripped off at a store playing Schubert, with oriental rugs, offering tea?
Often, after getting duped in precisely this manner and finding themselves in ownership of what turns out to be a stunningly obvious fake, buyers prefer to hide their loss. That’s because getting duped by a forgery—to the extent that it represents a failed effort to signify wealth, taste, and mastery of an insider code—is in some ways the rich person’s ultimate humiliation.
“It’s like food poisoning,” says Alexandra Porter, a Manhattan art dealer. “The chances of getting it at a restaurant are not high, especially if you know where you’re going. But can it happen? Of course. And when it does it’s terrible.”
Auto parts tycoon Nicholas Taubman is one of the rare victims who chose to go public after being snookered. In 2005, Taubman, a Roanoke, Virginia, native, bought a painting by Clyfford Still—an abstract expressionist whose work rarely comes to market—at an art fair for $4.3 million. For the next several years it adorned the American embassy in Bucharest, to which Taubman, a heavy-hitting Republican donor, had been appointed ambassador by George W. Bush.