the case of the art student scam

door-to-door

If you live in any kind of metropolitan area, then you've probably experienced the joy of door-to-door salesmen. Sometimes they sell phone connections, sometimes fundraising, sometimes even spirituality. And then occasionally you might get a twenty-something student carrying a bunch of oil paintings, representing some international art student collective - these are the ones I'm going to deal with here.

the artist's collective

The first time we encountered the so-called art students was a couple of years ago, in 2009, in the form of a guy who claimed to be from an art school in Israel. He showed us the portfolio he was carrying, which contained about thirty oil paintings of various art styles and genres. Some looked more familiar than others, but pretty much all were generic oil paintings. He said none of them were his own work , but painted by his fellow students because they weren't allowed to sell their own work, which explained the range of styles and why he didn't know that much about the paintings. We weren't planning on buying any, of course - who trusts door-to-door salesmen anyway? But my mum really liked this one painting, a brightly-coloured depiction of five figures. So I bought it for her as a present - $150. Not bad for an oil painting, of course. And it was an oil painting - the textures and consistency were pretty much right.

The student tried to hook us up with a framing service at the time, saying we could get a good deal through them. But we declined, because we weren't in any rush to frame it and instead it was kept safe and rolled up in the cupboard. I mentioned to the student that the art collective he was representing should make a website, and reach a wider audience, but he was quick to shake his head and say that the goal of the art collective was to bring art to people's homes, so that they could see how it looked as opposed to going all the way to a gallery. Well, my thought was - Australia's a bit further than an art gallery! But all good, nothing further to report… until February this year.

the return of the artist's collective

This time two students came to the door, a guy from France and a girl from Canada acting somewhat as translator. Again, both claimed to be part of an student artist union and that the paintings they carried weren't their own, but other students' work. Actually, the French guy was pretty convincing with his description of each painting, and made good use of artsy language which I vaguely kept up with based on Year 9 art class. This time there was a famous painting cloned among the artworks - the one by Michelangelo with the finger-touching that was parodied in the movie ET. And most interesting, there were two artworks that were extremely similar in style and subject, of a ballerina and an ice skater in wispy gold silicon. I asked him why the two paintings were so very similar in style and yet with different artist's names at the bottom, and he said it was by students from the same studio. Of course.

Again, wasn't planning on buying anything but one painting struck me as quite interesting. It was of waves crashing on a beach, which obviously isn't that unique a theme, but the cool thing about this painting was that the colour blue wasn't used at all - it was only blacks, whites, browns, yellows and a bit of orange. I probably should have just left it, but it was a very pretty painting and in two years the price increase was only $10 ($160 for the painting). So I decided to go for it. I didn't have the cash that night so I gave the French student a deposit of $50 and he said he'd come back for the rest the next evening. I asked him about the student that painted the artwork and all he could tell me was that the student was from Bolivia, but the girl said they'd get me some more information. And you know, even though from the very beginning of this whole affair it seemed a bit dodgy, I was still not that suspicious of it all yet. Not until the framer.

the framer strikes

So this time I agreed for the framer to contact me and talk about framing both the paintings we had. He called on a Friday night while I was out and arranged to stop by the next day and show me some frames. Perhaps it should have been implicit but as far as I was concerned, there was no implication that if the framer came to our house, we'd have to buy the frames. I figured it was just like the paintings, try before you buy.

When he stopped by, he explained that framing consisted of stretching the canvas over a wooden frame to keep it taught and then putting a frame around the edge. For the most basic frame, this was to cost $100, or $140 for a black-coloured frame. I knew this was roughly the price you'd expect to pay for framing, but it was still a bit steep, the guy wasn't willing to compromise on the price for two paintings and to be honest, the frames weren't that impressive and seemed a bit fragile. So we decided not to buy in this case. The mannerisms of the framer changed immediately - he went from friendly to cold and rude, obviously quite pissed off that he wasn't going to make a sale. It wasn't as if we had said we absolutely weren't buying, but we wanted time to consider it since it was almost as expensive as the paintings themselves and we said we would contact him via the website if we were interested. But nonetheless, this framer was pissed so he gathered his materials, slammed it all together and stormed off, saying "You know what they say in the UK, shit happens - well this is shit!" A few slammed van doors later and he was gone.

I was absolutely stunned at his behaviour. I've worked in retail and customer service before, and that kind of treatment of a potential customer would probably have gotten me fired. There's no way you're allowed to be so unprofessional even in the case of not making a sale. Anyway, I was so angry at the framer that I scoured the framing website, trying to figure out why it screamed dodgy in the same way the students and the framer did. Then I noticed on the framing section that they had example stock pictures of paintings on display. And, in fact, they had the very same ballerina painting we'd seen the other day in the portfolio! Not that odd, perhaps, if the framing company and the student art collective have some kind of official connection. Except that in both cases the students tried to distance themselves from the framers, as if they weren't closely connected - so how did the framing company get those images?

digging up oil

If I'd known better then, I would have just typed 'art student scam' into Google. But I didn't. So I started with the cost of framing, and how to do it yourself. This put me through to an About.com article about self-framing, with a link at the bottom to cheap oil painting replicates. Alarm bells started ringing in my head, especially since the average price of the paintings on this site was about US$20. But despite looking at all the different sections, I didn't find the paintings we'd bought. Still, it was beginning to dawn on me by then that there was quite a bit more to the art student collective than it seemed. Not just dodgy, but a form of uber-dodgy.

By then I'd finally come to and typed 'art student scam' in, and found a very illuminating article with another link to a website where cheap oil paintings could be bought. This time, there were a lot more paintings to choose from with numerous sections and even a FAQ section that clearly states the paintings are duplicates. Still oil paintings, but not 'original' in the proper sense of the word. I searched through a few likely sections, browsing the pages for a hint of chocolate-coloured waves.

And sure enough, on page 14 of the seascapes section, there it was. My 'original', 'unique' oil painting, identical for all purposes in colour, design, structure. The only real difference? The price. For this painting, of the size I bought, the Doupine shop told me I'd be out of pocket all of US$5.95. Amazing, right? You couldn't even buy the corner of a print for that much. And of course, my mum's painting was there too, in the abstract section. Same price, same size. Same everything. Here we are dealing with a mark-up of almost 2700% in each case! That's quite a profit margin.

what's going on?

So what's the deal here? Well, it's a scam in that the students that come to your door are outright lying about the origin of the paintings. That's misrepresentation and it's against the law. Ironically, that seems to be the only thing illegal about this whole operation. If you're thinking you could just go buy the painting yourself for $6, that's true but there is one catch - they only ship in orders of 100 paintings or more. So you'd either want a lot of paintings or have a lot of friends wanting paintings for that to work out.

How does it all work? Well, on a larger scale, it's more than possible to import large quantities of oil paintings for that price, if you're going to resell them. But how do you avoid the government or the general public questioning the origin of the paintings? Door-to-door, of course. People generally don't even expect receipts if they buy something door-to-door! We as consumers should really know better, especially since mass ignorance is what makes these scams work. But there are a lot of doors in Sydney, you might say? So you need some cheap labour to distribute for you. What's the cheapest labour you can get that won't question the nature of the work? Travelling students and backpackers. How do you give them incentive to make a good profit on the artworks? Give them a commission.

For example, take the base cost of the painting ($6). Round it up to whatever you want in order to make your profit (say, $50). Then tell the student that whatever they make on top of that is theirs to keep. That's a surefire way to make people lie about the origin of the artworks. What would you say if someone came to your door, telling you they were selling marked-up Chinese reproductions for such a profit? And if instead they told you they were struggling new artists trying to get a breakthrough as part of an international art students' union? No wonder they lie about it.

moving on

Now, you might ask, what do I think of my painting, or my mum's painting? I've always believed that the worth of paintings is subjective - it's determined by the masses, by public opinion, by critics. Is the Mona Lisa worth billions? Millions? Is it worth the sum of the materials that went into producing it? Can its worth be determined by its age, or by its historical significance, or by some amazing amount of technique that went into producing it? In the end, it's just a painting. It's those who view it that determine its worth.

I'm sure some have already pointed out that this kind of profit margin is no different to that of designer clothes made in China, or shoes made in China. Or anything else for that matter. Everything is sold for individual profit, it's the basic principle of capitalism. It's unclear whether Doupine's workers are in better condition than slave labourers responsible for mass market products. But really, the only thing that separates this whole oil painting business from that of the clothes and shoes everyone wears is that the process is more transparent. You can be indignant about it, but really it's happening all the time, it's just that no one knows the details.

In the end, it's still an oil painting. It might not have been painted by a Bolivian art student, but it was still painted by someone in a Chinese factory working for Doupine (as far as we know). I couldn't have painted it myself, that's for sure. Nor are we likely to have mass-ordered 100 paintings online, so I couldn't have gotten it that way either. On the surface, and it's a cursory surface at best, it seems like all the cogs in this system are turning. Doupine is in control of the price it sells its artworks for, so it should be happy. The organisation importing the paintings are obviously making a lot of profit, so they're happy. The students and backpackers are making more money than they could otherwise, so they're probably happy. And the consumers? Well, yes, it's a large mark-up. And yes, in general we're being deceived about it. But on the whole, that price for what seems to be a hand-painted oil painting is pretty damn good. And the paintings themselves are still cool, or we wouldn't have liked them in the first place.

So it's up to you to decide whether the price is worth it. Do we ask the same hard questions about origin when it comes to clothes? Or cars? Why is artistic work any different? Despite this, despite the contradiction, I still wish I knew more about the origin of the paintings - who painted it, their background, their own individual flair intrinsic in the works, their reason for painting. But now, knowing what we can, the reality is probably less romantic than that.

And paintings were never about reality in the first place.

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