Famous Fakes: Tips on How Not to Get Ripped Off

02/13/2012 05:12 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2012

As the executive producer of Antiques Roadshow, I get asked to peek in underwear drawers. Well, sometimes I do. If you're not interested in showing me something precious that's been tucked in between your silkies, then it's some dusty corner of the house: do other people go to dinner parties and wind up getting dirty in the attic?

As we climb the stairs I tell my hopeful hosts, "I'm not an appraiser, I just sound like one." Or, "Producing a show about antiques doesn't give me the background I need to evaluate your object." And when we finally reach the treasure destination, I prep them with this little tidbit: "If you think you have a six-figure object in your house that you don't know about... you don't." Really.

Ah, but one in ten thousand times, it does happens. You see it every Monday on PBS as millions watch Roadshow dreams come true.

Then there's what some might call the Roadshow nightmare: Discovering you own a fake!

Fakes are tricky. History is littered with stories of esteemed experts being fooled, one of the most famous a holding in the Vatican Library: "The Donation of Constantine," a manuscript supposedly written in the 4th century which is like a "deed" giving the Church much of the land in Italy and western Europe. Hundreds of years after its acceptance, it was discovered to be a forgery. Or more recently, Han van Meegeren, an infamous Dutch forger of 17th century painter Johannes Vermeer, selling "Vermeers" for 7-figure prices and earning millions before being caught. (Fakes can skew the future: the deeded land stayed with the Church, and can we ever be sure all those "Vermeers" were discovered?)

In every city we visit, Roadshow confronts fakes. My favorite from this season's tapings is a story from Atlanta. Kim came to us with a stunning Fabergé egg for which she paid quite a bit: $15,000 at auction.

As the interview unfolded, appraiser Sebastian Clarke of Doyle New York didn't keep her in suspense: Kim had unintentionally bought a fake, or what some in the industry call "Fauxbergé." Sebastian details some of the offending issues: the decoration is punched out instead of being chased (engraved) the egg isn't a known Fabergé form, the enameling is off. As a matter of fact, our experts needed less than 30 seconds to make the judgment. To a trained eye, it's obvious. But to an untrained eye, and that includes this Roadshow producer, not so apparent.

After we returned from the Atlanta taping I stayed in contact with Kim. She just couldn't believe her egg wasn't right. I did the double check and shared the footage with the country's top experts who confirmed what we learned: the egg is a fake. Watch for this segment coming up on April 16th in Hour 1 from Atlanta: Kim handles the bad news with aplomb responding, "So, I can put my husband's ashes in there one day."

There are lessons to be learned from Kim's expensive mistake whether you're buying precious eggs or art glass: First and foremost, be like an appraiser, assume the object isn't right and let the quality tell you what you've got -- not the signature! Secondly, when buying at auction pay attention to the listing's details: does it say Fabergé or Fabergé-style? You don't want "style." If buying from a dealer will she guarantee the piece? Unlike buying from a pawnshop most dealers will stand behind the items they sell. And always pay attention to the provenance, the item's story, because those trails really do matter.

What else did Kim learn that fateful day in Atlanta? Her Fauxbergé is worth $3,000 to $4,000 at auction. Authentic Fabergé eggs sell in hundreds of thousands of dollars: the $15,000 purchase price was a warning in and of itself.

The ultimate lesson in all categories of collecting: Do your homework by seeing and touching authenticated works. As the Barbizon painter, Theodore Rousseau pointed out, "We should all realize that we can only talk about the bad forgeries, the ones that have been detected; the good ones are still hanging on the walls."

So this Valentine's Day, remember the lesson the Vermeer forger taught the world: In art, as in love, skepticism is your friend. Follow your heart, but trust your instincts. If you're going to spend a substantial amount of money, first find a reputable expert who knows a lot more than you do. Then if it still feels right, go for it. Even if you get a little dirty.

Watch Preview: 20th-C. Fake Faberge Enamel Egg on PBS. See more from Antiques Roadshow.

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