08/05/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 10/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Fake Chinese art scam hooks would-be investors

VANCOUVER - When a woman in British Columbia responded to an ad boasting great deals on art work in a Vancouver-based Chinese buy-and-sell publication, she wasn't doing it to become an art aficionado.

Instead, she was hoping to resell a work by a renowned Chinese contemporary artist to help pay for medical treatment for her chronically ill son. She came out of it feeling like a fool — an appraiser told her it was fake.

Lee told her story on the condition only her last name be used. She's embarrassed, she said, because she gave the art dealer $3,000, only to end up with what a small claims court concluded were goods worth just $250.

Hugh Bulmer is the director of fine arts and antiques specializing in Asian art for the Vancouver auction house Maynards.

During the last four years, he said he has seen a marked increase in people trying to pass off copies of Chinese artwork as originals in Vancouver.

"The market is full of it," he said.

"And you can guarantee that if something sold for a million dollars in Hong Kong last week, it will be copied and will be on the streets of Vancouver this week."

Lee's son has been in poor health since becoming ill overseas almost a decade ago. She said she sold her house and almost everything she had to pay for his medical care.

So, when the single mother saw an ad claiming unbeatable prices on valuable Chinese art, the eternally optimistic woman's curiosity was aroused and she called the dealer.

She said he was an old man claiming to be a famous Hong Kong architect and gained Lee's trust by asking questions about her life. She told him about her ill child and decimated finances.

Lee said he appeared warm and sympathetic to her troubles. He showed her a painting he said was an original he bought in Hong Kong by renowned artist Huang Zhou.

Huang first gained notoriety during the communist revolution in China and was especially famed for his depictions of the ethnic Uyghur minority, a group who look more Mideastern than east Asian. He died forever remembered as an influential and inspiring artist.

The artist also loved painting animals and Lee said a painting of five donkeys comprised of the seemingly carefree strokes and vibrant use of tones appeared original.

She put down a deposit and, after some Internet research, thought she could resell the painting on an upcoming trip to China for more than three times the price the man was asking.

Lee said she was convinced of the man's honesty and confident the work was authentic. She borrowed $3,000 to buy the painting, along with some vases the man claimed to be more than 100 years old and a supposedly antique Buddha statue.

But, according to a professional appraisal in court documents Lee filed, the painting was a copy and the vases were only about 50 years old.

Lee went back to the dealer's home for a refund and discovered she wasn't alone — another buyer had arrived at the same time with a fake painting he'd purchased demanding a $5,000 refund.

"The old man said, 'No, no money back," said Lee, adding he kicked her off his property.

"I said 'How come you're 80 years old and still treating people like this?'"

Bulmer said on one day earlier this year alone, he saw 30 pieces and 10 of them were not genuine. He suspects the people unsuccessfully trying to scam him knew what they were doing.

"(It is) people trying to make a quick buck, housewives, someone whose friend's given him these pieces from Hong Kong and is trying to pass them on," said Bulmer.

"I get students from UBC in here who are giving me pieces that supposedly belonged to their grandfather, who was a collector, and I know damn well they were made last week."

Bulmer said when he discovers a piece is a copy, he will tell the seller and offer to sell it clearly listed as a copy — not an original — to potential buyers.

He said anyone purchasing art has to do the leg work to ensure they don't have the canvass pulled over their eyes.

People need to check the history of ownership, or provenance, of the work they intend to purchase in order to authenticate it as well as talk to someone who has expertise in the genre.

In April, Lee won a suit against the vendor, named as Wan Lung Tsui in small claims court documents. But he has yet to return the $3,000 for the pieces plus expenses for the court case.

The man has not responded to requests for an interview.

He has been summoned to a payment hearing in September.