Proving fraud - intentionally deceiving a buyer of a work of art - is often quite difficult, says Lawrence Katz, counsel for the inspection division of the United States Postal Service, because "in the very subjective world of the arts, people can simply make an honest mistake."
With convictions rare, counterfeits can easily go back into circulation.
"The best way to ensure that a counterfeit artwork doesn't resurface in the art world is to destroy or deface it," says Catherine Begley, a special agent in the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"Shred it, incinerate it, stamp it so that no one will be fooled again."
Both the US Postal Service and the FBI try to do exactly that, permanently marking the work (branding a sculpture or applying an ink stamp to a painting or work on paper) as a fake, and requiring that the work be accompanied by a certificate describing it as counterfeit.
The FBI and the Postal Service generally don't want to give the fakes back to the person convicted of selling or trying to sell them out of concern that the works will be used in a future scam. "You see the same artworks showing up again and again, sometimes three or four times," says Lynne Chaffinch, program manager for major art thefts at the FBI.
Jack Ellis, a Postal Service inspector who led an investigation into a nationwide art forgery ring in the 1980s and '90s, oversaw the incineration of tens of thousands of fake Chagall, Dali, Miro, and Picasso prints in 1997. But still he was startled to find that thousands of fakes confiscated by the government were allowed to return to the market.
In 1995, "we asked the trial judge to let us destroy all the pieces we knew were fakes," he says. Instead, the judge ordered 11,000 of the counterfeit prints auctioned off to repay the Postal Service for its costs investigating the case.
The prints, which had been marked as counterfeits in small letters on the back and were accompanied by certificates stipulating that they were fakes, raised $347,550.
"Our fear, of course, is that some of these auctioned works may get into the wrong hands," Mr. Ellis says. "Cover the back of the print with a mat, lose the certificate that says it's a fake, and someone is back in business selling counterfeit art. It's very discouraging."
Art dealers lobbied Ellis to not destroy the fakes. "I had a lot of offers from dealers," he says. "Some offered up to a million dollars to buy these prints so that they could sell them as "the famous fakes."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor