Being a young artist in New York City isn't easy: Not only are you dealing with an often insular and pretentious community, but, despite NYC being central to the American art-buying world, it is also the most expensive city in the U.S. And a fledgling artist does not a millionaire make.
Yet, an enterprising group of fraudsters seem to be capitalizing on the hunger of emerging artists with a new (and reprehensible) scam. With young artists increasingly turning to social networking sites, new promotional services, and the Internet to help expand their viewership, the possibility of meeting "collectors" with less-than-authentic intentions also arises. When artist Camille Altay was cold-called by "collector" Benita Garcia about the purchase of two of her pieces, she was both shocked and elated. She had recently taken part in a group show in an affluent part of Brooklyn, so the idea that her artwork was seen by a person she didn't know wasn't surprising. "It was a little bit strange, but I didn't want to ask too many questions. The reason I was in that recent group show was also because of a cold call, as well," says Camille. In a convincing (and grammatical error-ridden) email, Garcia asked, "I will like to proceed with the purchase of Absurd Moment. I think it is a lovely work and I hope to give it a good home. I am presently traveling for my Sister's wedding even though it comes at a time when i am preparing for a big move to Alpine, NJ but it means so much to her and i should be back in few days." What follows is a complicated back-and-forth executed by a huckster that clearly understands the market, and provides enough relevant clues to keep the young artist hungry. "I didn't ask too many questions. As an artist, I was thrilled by the idea that an image of mine could captivate a stranger and that made me push away my suspicion," relates Camille. "Especially because she engaged with me about my artwork."
No one deserves to take part in any sort of scheme, but one involving emerging artists feels particularly egregious, and Camille's story makes it clear that those in the artistic community are being targeted by the particular scheme. In the following exchange of emails, Garcia asks Camille about her inspiration and approach, and then seems to want to proceed immediately, even looping her in with a shipping company that Garcia will pay to pick up the piece. In fact, Camille is even Fed Ex'ed a check for her piece with the agreement and scheduled a shipping date with someone who claimed to be an expert in art handling. (However, Garcia provides ample excuses to not be able to travel to Camille's studio. Yet, the appearance of a valid check seemed to quell those doubts.)
Photo: Courtesy of Camille Altay
Then things began to get weird. The check Altay received was for way more than she was asking, a fact she drew attention to via email, and received this response: "Thanks for the update. It is good to hear you have received the payment. I am so excited and can't wait to have the painting on my wall. I hope to give it a very good home and enjoy the piece for many years.
Regarding the check , i spoke with my husband now and he made a terrible mistake and overpaid you because he didn't have full details of the transaction since i was too busy when he sent it. I am very sorry for the confusion but i will like you to go ahead and deposit the check you can then deduct the cost of the painting and forward the difference back to him.
Meanwhile , i will like you to schedule with the movers and keep me posted with details. Try and acknowledge this email as soon as you can. Thanks for your understanding." Red flags went up for the young artist.
"The check deposited, and I called my bank at that point. I asked them what the deal was," Altay says. It was suspicious at that point. However, they said it was because I deposited it at an ATM on the weekend, and it needed one day to be verified to post to my account. And it posted on Tuesday morning." Yes. The check posted, which means that the ring involved is advanced enough to have convincing checks and a legitimate banking and routing number. Which means Altay refunded the money, as asked.
Of course, the number one sign of fraud is when the person you work with starts out as being agreeable, and then becomes increasingly hard to work with — in this case, asking to be "refunded" the overage of the check. Then one of Garcia's "assistants" became injured. The name of the payment changed. The story got increasingly convoluted. "It was weird," says Altay. "I had acknowledged it as weird. But at that point I had thought their check had cleared. The reason I wanted to refund them completely is because I was thinking legally, concerning my obligations." Then, the check that was cleared a few days ago suddenly was removed from her account — it was approved by Chase but was flagged as a fraud by Wells Fargo, the bank from which the check originated.
A couple of clear warning signs that a potential buyer is too good to be true: The email address is nothing like the name of the person in which you are chatting (in this case, it was "email@example.com"). Someone wanting to make a large purchase should always want to see what they are investing in. And never, ever use Western Union.
Now, Garcia is nowhere to be found and her bank is working on refunding her money, and fortunately, Altay still has her artwork. "It really made me think that all of my business-sense is completely wrong," the artist admits in retrospect. "But these people really knew what they were doing." What Altay admits is particularly disheartening: "The idea of being an artist is based upon the notion that a stranger out there might actually want to engage with my art. That's something that made me want to believe the exchange wasn't as crucial. It made me want to allow myself to be trusting in this human instinct that I think exists." Which makes this entire ordeal particularly saddening: We'd love to think someone out there actually is interested in us for, you know, our ideas.
Photo: Courtesy of Camille Altay