How do we know how much a piece of art is worth? For most of us, a professional art appraiser or auction house gives us a number or price range, but that number is based partly on how much the artwork sold for the last time it changed hands, and it turns out determining that number is more tricky than it might initially appear to be.
To start with, who’s really buying the artwork? An auction house or dealer might say that sold a piece to a particular collector, but they rarely meet the collector in person. Instead, they deal with a “friend” of a collector, but that “friend” might turn out to be an “independent agent” who buys the artwork from the auction house or dealer for one price and sells it to someone else at a higher price.
Buyers and sellers are frequently shell companies, rather than individual agents, taking advantage of the secrecy inherent in the art world to conceal their identity.
Most investors would never consider investing millions (much less billions) into an industry with so much secrecy because such secrecy leaves the industry ripe for fraud. But in the case of the art world, it is that very secrecy that makes it so appealing to certain investors.
To combat the fraud that some say has become rampant in the world of art collecting, some people are saying it’s time we treat art dealers and auction houses more like we treat banks.
Banks are already required by law to identify their customers and where their wealth is coming from, as well as any transactions involving more than $10,000 in cash. Now the federal government is considering applying that same law to the art world. The new law would put an end to shell companies acting as collectors, or allegedly buying on behalf of collectors. Continue reading ›