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'Original Oil Paintings'?
Buyer Beware

by Doctor Robert Porter

If you've shopped for art online, you've seen the pitch. The headlines proclaim: "hand-painted," "Real Oil Painting," "real painting, not a print," and occasionally even something along the lines of "Signed Wyeth" or some other artist with a familiar name. And the prices are incredible - almost too good to be true. But like a magic trick, these works are only impressive until you find out the truth.

The works described by these glowing words are generally "hand painted" only in the sense that human beings actually handled them. They are not, however, the unique works of a gifted artist. Instead, they are produced in assembly line fashion by low-paid semiskilled workers who have been trained to simulate one element of a work of art: The first worker slathers on a sky with a large house painting brush. He/she then hands the "painting" to the next worker, who has been trained to paint a single cloud. Having performed the assigned duty, this worker then hands the product to the next person in line, who paints a single tree or whatever - and so it goes until you have a simulated piece of original art rolling off the end of the line.

Assembly-line art is nothing new, but dedicated mass-production wasn't really seen until the 80's when some Florida entrepreneurs noticed that their State had a lot of elderly people with time on their hands and at least some of them were willing to do almost anything for money. The resulting "hand painted" works - produced by the hundreds - were sold at "hungry artist" sales and later online in auctions. This was only the beginning, however.

With the advent of World "Free" trade, a brand new opportunity emerged for art fraud, and this was seized upon by China. Using workers paid just pennies an hour, Chinese art factories have been turning out "real oil paintings" by the tens of thousands for a few years now. When you can make people work eighteen hours a day with no overtime, it's pretty easy. But the Chinese factories went one step further (and a step over the line, in our opinion) in that they began adding one additional step at the end of the process: The last person in the line now adds the signature of a famous artist to this piece of pseudo-art.

If these pieces with phony signatures were produced in America, the persons responsible would be rotting in jail right now, but because these cheesy forgeries are produced overseas they seem to be immune from prosecution. This should not be interpreted, however, to mean that these pieces are not forgeries; they are, and the sellers who promote these items without plainly stating that they are knock-offs skate a thin line between providing a service and committing a crime.

This is yet another case of "buyer beware." If you choose to buy these art fakes, at least be aware that they will go down in value, not up. The painting you paid $100 to $400 at an online auction has a clone at the local thrift store selling for $2.99. The thrift store price is all these art travesties are really worth.

A better choice for the buyer looking for a real investment opportunity is to look for self-representing artists. Each of these people may be a long-shot as far as future worth, but they are far more likely to at least hold their value, unlike the knock-offs. And maybe...just maybe, you may accidentally stumble upon the next Picasso or Pollock.

Copyright (c) 2003 The Survivor Art Gallery
Christa D. Haight, Curator
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