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Recognizing Art Scams

It’s easy to think “it’ll never happen to me”, but when you’re an artist and someone is interested in your work, red flags can be overlooked in the excitement of having your work seen, being represented by a gallery or purchased. No one wants to be out money or art – and in some cases, both! Whether you’re an emerging artist, new to selling online, or haven’t encountered a con artist yet, it’s important to be prepared.

Early in my career, there was a rush of excitement when someone asks to buy your work or represent you at a gallery. The most scam emails I received were right after I graduated from Emily Carr in 2015. Over the years, they have gotten more sophisticated but the same clues are there.

I’ll go over a few of the latest types of scams and give you a toolkit to spot them yourselves.

Typical scams of this nature usually involve the artist being out both the artwork and a large sum of money. It happens to new artists as well as those who regularly sell online. You receive an email from someone looking to buy your work. You’re excited – especially if this is your first sale. You may overlook the following red flags that this is a scam:

  • Looking to buy a gift for their partner, they spotted your website up on the computer screen. This gift is a surprise and the buyer requires your discretion.
  • They don’t ask about a specific piece.
  • You have an online store that they have blatantly ignored.
  • There are many typos and grammatical errors.
  • They ask if you can send a price list of your work ranging from $500-$10,000.
  • The timeline is very tight and they provide far too many details.

An example of this type of email is:


My name is Anthonio Jack from Oregon. I actually observed my wife has been viewing your website on my laptop and I guess she likes your piece of work, I’m also impressed and amazed to have seen your various works too,You are doing a great job. I would like to receive further information about your piece of work and what inspires you.. Kindly confirm the availability for immediate sales.
Thanks and best regards.

When a genuine buyer is looking at your work they almost always have a piece in mind (or two) that they’ll contact you about. They also provide very few details. An example of a legitimate email I’ve received:

Subject: Squarespace Form

Hi Sára,
I follow you on Instagram and saw your new painting Love Song. Is it available for sale? If so, how do I purchase it? How much is shipping to Nova Scotia? My shipping address is [redacted]. Thanks, Kathy.

The most obvious differences between the email from Kathy and the email from Anthonio is that Kathy:

  • Refers to the painting by name
  • Refers to me by name
  • Gives me the information I need for a quote
  • Leaves the purchasing terms in my hands

Kathy also used the contact form on my website, whereas Anthonio emailed me directly – and likely purchased my contact information from a third-party as my email isn’t published on my website. This helps me sift through real requests versus fake ones based on the email inbox the request arrives in.

If you were to reply to Anthonio, you’d find out that they want the largest piece you have so shipping costs are high. Anthonio will want to pay you by cashier’s cheque, fake credit card number, money order, or PayPal link requiring you to log in. Anthonio will have many excuses as to why he can’t pay through your invoicing program and counts on your fear of losing a sale to make you agree to his terms. If I continued further, Anthonio would overpay for my painting and request I wire the excess funds to his shipper. By the time Anthonio’s payment bounces, I’ll be out the money, the excess I sent to the “shipper” and the artwork.

My interaction with Kathy was simple. I quoted her and let her know that I invoice through Square or PayPal, her preference. She opted for Square and I sent her an invoice which she paid online. Choosing to invoice (or sending the buyer to your online store) rather than accept other forms of payment provides you with fraud protection.

Adapting for social media, scam artists are now sliding in to your Direct Messages (DMs) on Instagram. Boasting accounts with hundreds of thousands of purchased followers and posts from well-known artists, promotional accounts target artists with small followings. It’s simple – they message you this (or alternatively comment on one of your posts):

Love your work!! We’d love to feature you. DM us to be promoted.

There’s usually a handful of emojis. If you DM this account, they’ll tell you what it costs per post for them to share your work to their huge following. They hope that you are unfamiliar with engagement statistics, influencer marketing and use the newly hidden ‘likes’ to their advantage.

The promotional scam can also come in the form of an email directing you to a new platform or app that guarantees to connect you with curators and collectors. They claim it’s free but often the cost comes at your information being sold to third-party companies. These sites are also mined for work that is then reproduced overseas on cheap merchandise. There are professional sites such as Saatchi Art, that connect you with collectors and Society6 that prints your work on merchandise.

Less of a scam and more of a cash grab, the vanity gallery will offer you representation or solo shows at an immense cost to the artist. They operate as pay-to-play and don’t have the incentive to sell your work since they already obtained their income from the artists themselves.

Being offered gallery representation is exciting and this is what vanity galleries depend on. Often located in trendy neighbourhoods known for galleries, they offer you the chance to get your art on the map. Many artists will accept this offer out of desire to become well-known in their medium. A lot of these galleries are located in New York or London, and try to lure in artists with the promise of instant fame for having a show in these cities.

How do they know to contact you? They scour the internet for artists who don’t list gallery representation and target them as they are the most vulnerable group and more likely to pay to have their work in a gallery out of desperation.

While vanity galleries are a legitimate business, their practices are unethical and often harm artists in the long run. When a vanity gallery is spotted on an artist’s CV, it makes it very evident that the artist paid to have their ego stroked. Consider vanity galleries to be a way of gambling with your career and your finances.

Note: vanity galleries primarily contact via email but have also started sliding into artist’s DMs as well.

While not a scam per se, this event generally preys on inexperienced artists who want their first exhibition. This email circulates heavily in metropolitan cities, especially after graduation. The scheme is you pay for a booth at this art party that showcases artists, designers and musicians. The email usually has a description like this:

[Redacted] is a multidisciplinary art exhibition – an event where artists have the opportunity to express their talent, network and share their passion.

Our goal is to collaborate various styles of art, to break down the perceived barriers of the art world, and to give people the opportunity to experience and collect art in an inviting atmosphere.

[Redacted] features up to 150 artists and designers from up to 12 countries during which a full roster of performance art, and world entertainment unravels. 

These events are usually fun for the attendees but they require artists to sell a minimum of 20 tickets (which is how you pay for your booth). The lighting is bad, there is a huge risk to have your work damaged, and it’s not conducive to sales. If you don’t sell your block of tickets, you are responsible for paying for the ones that do not sell.

There are art parties, such as Vancouver’s Art Rapture, that showcase artist’s work in a party setting but they also curate the show and act as art dealers for the involved artists. Since it’s curated and by invitation only, the show does not require the artists to spend money.

When selling online, never deviate from your chosen payment method. Whether you accept Square, Stripe, PayPal or Transferwise, don’t choose another method – especially one that is not encrypted with fraud protection. Wire transfers, EFTs, cheques, PayPal links and even Interac e-transfer (among other methods) can be faked, leaving you on the hook for the money you’ve already spent and the fees involved.

That moment when a sale seems close to your fingertips, it’s easy to let logic fly out the window. If a buyer refuses to pay a typical invoice through any of the aforementioned services, it should raise an alarm. Using the invoicing feature insures that you have charged the correct amount for the work plus any shipping/handling to the collector, and immediately stops the classic “oops I sent too much” scam.

Read everything you receive in email or through social media closely. Big giveaways are typos, placing the cost on the artist, or the message reading like it was run through Google translate. Keep an eye out for phony emails too – such as if the email address has a different name than the sign off, a large company is using a Gmail, or the email comes from a suspicious site.

If a gallery contacts you, vanity or otherwise, be sure to look at their website and see if your work fits with their roster of artists. Is the work cohesive and well-curated? Does it look like anything goes? Do they list their artists? This is the first step in discerning if the gallery is pay-to-play or legitimate. It can also be worth your time to reach out to artists on the roster to see what their experience with the gallery is like.

I hope that this information serves you well as you approach your career as an artist. The internet provides artists with so many amazing opportunities but be careful of those looking to simply take advantage of your desire to success.

Bottom line, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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