Anatomy of an Art Fraud on eBay

In view of the chap who just pled guilty to selling fake Picassos on eBay (see, for example, yesterday’s NY Times online article, “Chicago Man Admits He Sold Bogus Picassos on eBay”, which begins as follows, “A suburban Chicago man pleaded guilty Tuesday to swindling at least 250 people out of more than $1 million through the sale of counterfeit prints advertised as the work of Pablo Picasso and other major contemporary artists”), I thought I’d post an exchange I had with another eBay seller some time ago, as follows, beginning with the email that first drew me in.  (This is a long exchange rife with more detail than you might wish.  But, if you don’t mind my saying so, whenever you’re considering a purchase, this is the kind of detail your due diligence ought to unearth.)  Here goes:


Dear Kobi, How fortunate for me to come across your Forum.  I was actually considering bidding on a “hand-signed PICASSO with Certificate and Provenance” this evening.  If you’re interested in viewing the listing that almost had me, it is eBay #________.  I suspect most individuals wouldn’t have taken the time to do some basic online fact checking.  The paper size is indeed different from the one listed at the Picasso Project as you suggest.  There is a small fortune changing hands just in the pursuit of a signed print from the Vollard Suite on eBay.  Imagine the amount for all Picasso’s!  With sincere gratitude, Richard

Dear Richard, Actually, this episode is so funny that it’s worth blogging.  Bolliger published a book in Germany in 1956 of the identical dimensions as stated on eBay for the print for sale.  It seems that the seller just tore a page out of Bolliger!  The only thing I can’t account for is the missing page number….  Best wishes, Kobi

At this point (this is Kobi speaking), I sent the following message to the seller, and the following interchange ensued:

Q: Are you aware that this print is not an original print by Picasso? The original was an etching of a different size than you describe. I believe your print was torn out of Bolliger’s book, which dimensions it fits perfectly. Did you know that? Thanks

A: This print was not torn out of Bolliger’s book. I have his book and I can tell the difference. For one thing the type and weight of the paper is radically different. I never implied that this was from a first original edition which, if signed, would list for over $10,000. However, I’m happy to exchange any form of information which you desire about the artist, his publisher, his printers, and his editions. Thank you for your email.

Q: I am an expert in Picasso prints.  You should be aware that there is no “original” German edition, as some fraudsters have claimed.  In fact, there is no original edition of any Vollard Suite prints other than the impressions published by Vollard.  Any other editions are not original in any sense of the term, as they were not created by Picasso in any direct way, other than someone reproducing his design.  Are you aware of the accuracy of all of my assertions?  Finally, are you aware that the signature is forged?

A: Please send me your name and credentials. I would like to further discuss this with you. I am not trying to be antagonistic when I pose this question back to you: Are you, kobiledor, aware that Vollard published none of the so-called Vollard Suite prints? He died shortly after Picasso completed the commission. The copper plates were never printed to paper before 1950. And then, they had been sold to separate parties (not printed by the Vollard estate.)  I have a lot more information on this which is verifiable in a number of the most impeccable art history reference books. However, I do understand that even textbooks can have erroneous entries. So, please share your sources of information with me which support your assertations [sic].  I disagree that the signature is forged. I have addressed your other assertations [sic] in a direct response to the email which was sent from you separately. Before we continue this dialogue, which consists mainly, as I see it, of hostile accusations, I would like to know who you are and specifically what your credentials are.

Q: I do not intend my questions to be laced with hostility.  I am simply in favor of honesty in the marketplace.  My credentials are that I have studied and collected Picasso and particularly his prints for many years, and I own a nearly exhaustive library consisting of all his important catalogues raisonées.  Again, I mean no offense, but your last two emails are rife with misinformation.  What is not entirely clear to me is whether this results from your honest mistakes or  an actual intention to misinform.  On the chance that you intend to misinform your clients, I would prefer not to further address your factual errors for fear that you would accordingly adapt your captions in order to further mask the lack of originality of your offerings.  If, on the other hand, you are honestly in search of an education in order that your allegations stick closer to the truth, please then prove your intentions to me, and then I’ll be happy to reconsider sharing the facts with you.  Please note that eBay classifies your Vollard as an original hand-signed Picasso in its first line.  It is none of these things.  In order to be an honest dealer, it is incumbent upon you to accurately describe who and how made your print.  To say that its provenance is directly traceable to Picasso is ludicrous.  I only can hope that the many mistakes you have made are honest ones, but your choice of words and phrases seem so crafty as to make me fear the worst.  Please pardon me if I have misjudged you, but I tend to doubt it.  Best wishes.

That was the end of the correspondence. 

The following is the eBay listing, with the identity of the seller omitted, and with my italicized annotations:

Listed in category:Art > Prints > Contemporary (1950-Now) > Limited Editions > Original Hand-signed PICASSO with Certificate and Provenance
Comment: Here is the first mention that the print is “original”, though just below, note that the vendor left blank the “Original/Repro” question that eBay poses.

NO RESERVE – Beautiful Framing worth $500+
Type: Modern – Limited Edition
Signed?: Signed
Comment: The signature is a forgery.  Not only does it not resemble any of Picasso’s signatures, but the only prints of the Vollard Suite which were signed in red, 3 impressions out of a total edition including all artist’s proofs, of 321, were printed on parchment.

Medium: Lithograph
Comment: None of the original prints of The Vollard Suite were lithographs.  Every one was an intaglio print, usually an etching. Any other print depicting a Vollard Suite image is a worthless fake with a forged signature.

Original/Repro: — [left blank]
  No Reserve!  
This is the last lithograph that I have from this limited edition.  All of the others have been sold.  This is one of Picasso’s most treasured lithographs made from the Vollard Suite etchings (plate #79).  A wonderful collector’s item with Certificate of Authenticity from the original gallery and Provenance going back to Picasso.
Comment: COA’s aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, if you don’t know and trust their author, and the provenance is untrue, as this fake could not have gone back to Picasso, as he had nothing to do with fake Vollard Suite prints.

This piece was printed in 1956 in Germany. But the lines are so fine and crisp that this looks like the original etching pulled from the copper plate. Ambroise Vollard commissioned Picasso to make these etchings in 1930.  There were 100 individual drawings (all etched onto copper plates) and the last one was completed in 1937. Unfortunately, Vollard died in an auto accident before they could be printed on paper and the copper plates were subsequently purchased by a European art dealer.  It wasn’t until 1950 that the first pieces were printed on paper and signed.
Comment: Actually, the entire original edition was published in 1939 by Lacouriere in Paris.

This piece, offered for sale now, was published in Germany in 1956 by the famed art historian and publisher Hans Bolliger.
Comment: Hans Bolliger wrote the introduction for a book of photographs of the entire Vollard Suite, which was in fact published in Germany in 1956.  But, to my knowledge, he had nothing to do with producing a counterfeit German “edition” of these images.

•    Title: Two Women – Paris, January 29, 1934.
Comment:  The title is wrong, but never mind.

•    Signature and Inscription:  Hand-signed in red grease pencil by Picasso (lower right) after the print was pulled.  Guaranteed authentic.  Picasso also inscribed the copper plate with the location and date when he made the original etching on copperplate. This inscription was etched in the Continental dateform: Paris 29 Janvrier [sic] XXXIV (lower left corner).
•    Publisher/Printer: Hans Bolliger, Germany, 1956
•    Condition:   Excellent with some uniform age toning of the paper. This does not detract from the beauty of this piece. There are no rips, no tears, no faxing [sic] or other stains.
•    Frame:  Professionally mounted and framed in a lovely classic style gilt wood frame.    Ready to hang.
•    Guarantee:   30 Day Unconditional Guarantee from date you receive your artwork.  No Questions asked! Also, the AUTHENTICITY IS GUARANTEED FOR LIFE.
Great, but the authenticity of what is he guaranteeing?  Of a German “edition” of this print, or of an original print by Picasso?  The vendor reveals his answer in his response to my first email.
•    Certificate of Authenticity:  I acquired this and other pieces from a European art gallery who provided me with a COA and also stated the Provenance (history of ownership).  That original COA, my Transfer of Ownership papers and all details of the publishing and printing will be provided to the auction winner.
•    Dimensions:  The paper measures about 11″ x 8-3/8″.  The frame is about 18″ x 21″ (exterior dimensions).
The size of the paper does not correspond with the original etching.
Check out my feedback!  More than 395 individual Ebayers have left me 600+ feedbacks.  I’ve been registered with Ebay for over 5 years and have worked hard to provide quality service.  Most of my business is from repeat customers who have been pleased with the high quality framing. Following are some examples which can be verified by reading my complete feedback.
+ Excellent Seller.  Product in excellent condition. Thanks.
+ A really classy Ebayer. Professional, meticulous, honest, great communicator
+ Simply the best Ebayer that I have traded with.  Exceeded all my expectations.
+ Friendly contact, rapid dispatch, good packed.
+ Great transaction.  Hope to buy again from this ebayer. A++++++
+ Perfecto. Articulo con COA.  Vendedor muy amable y altamente recomendable.
Insurance is included with all shipping rates! Discounted shipping for multiple orders!
Terms of Guarantee for Individual Buyers: Complete satisfaction guaranteed. No questions asked for return within 30 (thirty) days of receipt.  No restocking fee.
Terms of Guarantee for Art Dealers (or those who buy art for resale):  Satisfaction guaranteed.  Returns accepted within 3 (three) days of receipt.  25% restocking fee.
Please visit my other auctions and my Ebay Store often!  I’m a private collector, preparing for retirement, and I’m liquidating my collection.  These are art pieces that I’ve lovingly collected and will try to supply literary references from my extensive art library as best I can.  If you have questions please email me, but please understand that all of my art will be sold on Ebay and I will not be selling artwork privately.  I have many signed and dated lithographs.  Hand-signed and numbered lithographs.  Pencil signed lithos. Serigraphs.  Dry Point Etchings.  And some exquisite aquatints and original drawings by the 20th century masters. Good luck bidding & thank you for visiting my auction!
I have a 30 day “no questions asked” return policy. auction. No reason need be given for the return. It’s a money back refund, using the same method payment was made to me. The 30 days begins when you receive everything associated with the transaction (including gallery certificates,etc.). Returns should be securely packed & insured. I will process a refund immediately after the item is received & inspected. You may return an item by any method that is convenient for you, but it’s better to ask me about your method in advance. Not every carrier delivers to my remote rural location & this can involve a delay. Shipping charges are not refunded. If you have questions about any aspect of my refund policy please send me an email. My goal is to have you be a happy customer! Most of my business is through repeat customers.
Feedback Score: 398
Positive Feedback: 100%

Comment: As far as I know, eBay scores are credible.  So as many as 398 unsuspecting Picasso lovers or investors have been fleeced on eBay, and that’s just by this vendor alone.

There were two bids on this lot.  The winning bid was $202.50. The winning bidder’s User ID was kept private.