Buying Art on EBay Part 1 of 3

Down The Rabbit Hole, originally uploaded by Dani.California

Who has not heard of the wonderful painting discovered in some forgotten old home, covered in grime, just to learn it's an Old Master painting, worth millions? Who has heard of the countless number of people who have dished out a good amount of money thinking they are buying an original, just to later find out they had been had? Since Orientalist Art is starting to be in vogue again and trading of this genre has picked up at auction houses such as Sotheby's, Christies. Bonham's, etc.

~ And then there is Ebay! I figured a "Buyer's Beware" post might be interesting, which brings me to a wonderful Essay written by Mr. Lee Forman, who was kind enough to share his personal experience as an art buyer on Ebay. He will be highlighting some of the pitfalls and triumphs he has had in a four part essay, which I will publish on this blog. Feel free to share your own experiences and answer questions.

Before I begin this post, I would like to offer a sincere thank you to Enzie, a friend of mine pressed me to write it. Enzie has been kind enough to oblige me with the opportunity to post on her Blog.

Buying art on eBay
For anyone familiar with eBay, there is a category called 'Art.' You can enter into the vast section devoted to paintings, and sort: by time frame, medium, genre, original vs reproduction, signed, etc. -- and see some amazing pieces of art for sale. However, there is a flaw in the overall process, as it is really a bit of a gamble for anyone genuinely interested in collecting art. If you are interest in collecting, you are much better served in attending Estate sales, visiting Galleries, participating in an online auction or buying direct from a contemporary artist online - however, if you are still of the mind to consider buying art through eBay, here are a number of tips which can help - based upon my own experiences.

Don't buy from China
And don't take my word for it, but a 'handicraft' painting is simply a canvas transfer, or giclee. The Chinese use technology which involves an enormous printer which uses oil paint instead of ink, and feed the canvas through instead of paper. These are not originals, they are not 'hand crafted,' they have no value - unless you like the way it looks. They are 'giclee' versions [more on this later], and without being authorized by the original artist [signed and numbered and under contract] - they are in fact illegal. Aside from shipping costs and long periods of waiting - how do you expect to get your money back when you discovered you've been duped? Don't buy anything from a Chinese seller unless it's something from China that you like. Everything else can be 'made in China' - not antique fine art by European or American artists.

As an addendum - beware of sellers in Bulgaria, Spain, Italy and the UK as well. Some are consistently finding the works of master artists [allegedly] in well known flea markets - like the Rastro in Madrid, or Portobello in London - it's possible, but a real stretch. More likely someone is producing pieces of art in imitation of genuine artists - and they are in the business of the old 'confidence game.' Their location doesn't add to their credibility.

Buy what you like
That's always a good rule. Don't buy a piece with the hopes that it may turn out to be worth a million dollars - buy it because it spoke to you, and you would like to see it hanging on a wall in your home. But more important than that, if you are serious about collecting art, you should really know your artists.

Know your artist
For starters, you should already have an artist, or artists plural, in mind whom you have an interest in collecting. If the artist is still living, you can probably locate them online and contact them directly. However, if you are more interested in artists from a particular timeperiod or genre in the past - then there are a few good tips to keep in mind.

First - you should really have the latest catalogue raisonne for that particular artist, if there is one. While it is possible for any artist to have a work of art discovered which is not detailed in any exhaustive catalog, for the most renowned artists, like Van Gogh for example, it's extremely rare - the odds are seriously against. 'Maybe' isn't worth the risk - better off to take the equivalent on what you were prepared to spend on a 'maybe Van Gogh watercolor' and play the lottery. Much better odds.
"The typical catalogue raisonné is a monograph giving a comprehensive catalogue of artworks by an artist.
The essential elements of a catalogue raisonné are that:
a. it purports to be an exhaustive list of works
b. for a defined subject matter
c. describing the works in a way so that they may be reliably identified by third parties." Wikipedia
Secondly, an online tool is always a sound idea - a subscription to a site like or - extremely valuable for providing information on past auctions, which will give you an idea not only on how much the artists work normally goes for at public auction, but also mediums which the artist worked in, sizes of pieces produced, whether they used canvas, board, paper, years that the artist was active, and titles of pieces which have been auctioned in the past, etc. A more expensive subscription is supposed to also include the ability to see examples of the artists work and signature as well - but I don't have one of these to be able to judge its efficacy in this regard. You can use an online search tool like Google, however I found this to be fairly limited, as you really need a high resolution image to work with for examining finer details.
Thirdly, you should have an appreciation for the artists work - a sense of their style, the normal medium they use, examples of their signature over time, typical size of the paintings that they did, etc. For example, the famous portrait artist George Romney didn't paint miniatures of his own work - I attempted to explain that to one eBay seller unsuccessfully.

There are books which you can buy that contain detail on artist's signatures - they typically have multiple versions of an artist's signature, as most change a bit over time. For certain artists, you can quickly recognize the timeframe in which a piece would have been done, based upon a certain style, use of color, or the signature, even if the work is not dated.

Fourth, if you are viewing a piece of art online, you need to at a minimum to have three things:

a. A high quality view 'recto.'
b. A close-up of the artist's signature.
c. A high quality view 'verso.'

"The second or backside of any work on paper, or canvas. Artists at times may create sketches or even complete paintings on the reverse side of a work, making it a double-sided painting. Verso is the opposite term to the word Recto. A title or signature may be inscribed ‘on verso’ on a piece, or on the stretchers on the reverse side of a work. ‘Verso inscription’ refers to information on the back of a painting, either on the canvas, the stretcher bars, or on the frame. Multiple-line verso inscriptions are common, as are stamps and other marks, especially on the frame. Source:; International Federation of Libraries website; Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary; and website of glass artist Dave Archer. (LPD)"

Fifth - an indication of where the piece came from before it was made available for sale. This is known as 'provenance' and is strongly sought when approaching an auction house to sell a piece. An auction house is not prepared to stake its reputation on something you say you found in an attic.

"Provenance, from the French provenir, "to come from", means the origin, or the source, of something, or the history of the ownership or location of an object." Wikipedia

The eBay game
If you see a piece which you believe has merit, there are a few quick steps which you should consider.

1. Review the status of the seller - what is their rating? Do they have any negative feedback and if so, what was said? How many ratings does the seller have? A low number is high risk.

I have actually seen feedback posted positively which said, 'Nice fakes!' So it is also wise to review the positive as well as the negative [if any].

2. Where did the piece come from? It is absolutely possible to find valuable pieces of art at estate sales, garage sales, or inherit them; however, what I have seen common among sellers of rubbish -'this was part of a house clearance,' or 'this was part of the estate of an individual high up in the military that travelled around Europe collecting art,' or even worse,'this piece is part of a collection put together by my Grandmother, who was a nanny to a rich couple that lived all over Europe.' Amazing how she could afford such pieces on a Nanny's salary.

3. How good are the photos? If they aren't that good - contact the seller and ask for better versions. Never buy anything if the photo is too blurry.

4. Compare the signature to all known examples you can lay your hands on. Miro knew how to sign his name [see images below in this post] - the bogus seller flooding the market with counterfeit works by Miro, Klee, Matisse, Picasso, etc. - he doesn't seem to get that. A signature isn't forced or stilted - it's an automatic and conditioned response - it flows.

5. What else is the seller selling? For example, there is a seller in south america that is constantly trying to pass off bogus pieces of art. She claims her grandparents travelled around Europe in the sixties, collecting the pieces she has for sale, and no other details. I contacted her concerned a Mary Cassatt she had listed - it was of a young girl holding a baby - I asked a simple question - do you expect us to believe that Mary Cassatt would have painted a scene where the baby would be facing away from the viewer and we can only see the back of it's head? Can you show me a similar Cassatt for reference? No response.

Another tip-off on what the seller is selling - is it possible - now consider this carefully - that any seller could continuously and consistenly produce for sale from a 'house clearance:' one Miro, one Matisse, one Klee, one Picasso, and one Modigliani? What are the odds? One trillion to none?

eBay Policy
There are a number of sellers of rubbish who will defer to a statement about authenticity with a disclaimer - no provenance or Certificate of Authenticity - therefore sold, 'in the manner of,' 'after,' in the circle of' etc. They refer to an obscure eBay policy which doesn't exist. Here is the eBay policy:

"Sellers may not disclaim knowledge of, or responsibility for, the authenticity or legality of the items offered in their listings. Sellers should take steps to ensure that their items are authentic before listing them on eBay. If a seller cannot verify the authenticity of an item, the seller is not permitted to list it." eBay

Unfortunately, that makes some >10,000 listings for paintings illegitimate - but folks like to gamble - so it's a double edged sword. An elderly couple with a real piece of art that they bought 40 years ago may not have the ability to go through the required steps to attain authentication - let me detail some of the process I went through with a piece that seller and I were convinced was a genuine Paul Klee.

First I had to get in contact with the Klee foundation. I received a copy of the contract through email. Once the contract was complete, I had to fulfill a requirement for a 'color transparency with grey and color scale, 10x12cm, recto and verso.' After contacting a number of art studios and professional photographers, I discovered that there was only really one place around any longer that could perform this work [since everyone was now digital] - Duggal in New York City. This service cost about $200, and took a week, plus two trips into the City. Then I had to wire money to the foundation - just for their experts to examine the piece - this ran about $200 including the bank's charge for the service. Then I mailed the signed contract, negatives, and all the information I had on the piece off to Switzerland and waited. If it was thought to be authentic, then there could be a request to send the painting to Switzerland for closer examination, but either way, for a certificate of authenticity, and additional $600 or so would have been required. It was a no. Lucky for me, as per the start of this long article, I like the piece, and plan to one day have it professionally framed for display - despite the knowledge that it is not a Paul Klee original work - but someone's imitation.

Klee and certain other artists were highly prolific, and it is safe to assume that there are still pieces executed by Klee and others which have not been catalogued and included in a raisonne - and this submission process is actually a good litmus test, or a deterrent, to avoid too many individuals submitting counterfeit Klee's for authentication.

Author: Mr. Lee Forman

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