I feel like a fool. A month ago, I received an email from a foreign art collector who said he admired my paintings and wanted to buy one for his wife as a birthday present. Rent was coming up, and, honestly, it felt validating that someone liked my work. We went back and forth before settling on a large painting. He sent a check that included a few thousand extra to cover shipping and payment for the art handlers, which had to be in cash. A couple guys with a truck came to collect the work. It all seemed legit. A few days later, my bank charged me for a bounced check, and I realized that I’d lost a good painting and the money I’d paid the handlers. Why would anyone pull such an elaborate con on a vulnerable artist?
It surely stings to be defrauded, but please know that you aren’t the first victim of this scheme. Shifty, monocled Europeans have been using the internet to fleece gullible American artists for years. In fact, we once teamed with Interpol on a transcontinental sting to catch a nefarious swindler in Gstaad. The authorities arrived only two minutes after the tipped-off perpetrator escaped via helicopter. Retrieving some of the stolen works provided a modicum of solace to the artists who’d been duped, but it did little to relieve their distrust of a system that exists only to exploit their goodwill.
Artists want to believe that any interest in their work is real, whether it be a teacher’s encouraging critique or a positive comment made in passing by a curator. All art is, to a degree, an expression of the self, so good feedback always feels fulfilling. Such positivity and proclaimed interest may ultimately lead you to let down your defenses. Fine artists are natural prey for con artists—which is why gallerists are able to take 50 percent of a sale.
The “email purchase” scam is masterful and repeatable because the premise is specific enough to be believable. How can others avoid being hoodwinked? First off, never reply to blind queries from unknown, ungoogleable sources. Second, never get involved with any transaction that requires paying for shipping or art handlers. Real collectors and institutions know that these are their responsibilities to bear; if they ask you to arrange payments on their behalf, it’s time to cut them off. And finally, your creative, professional, and even personal life will markedly improve if you can get comfortable with saying no as much as you do yes.
I curated a recognized biennial a few years ago and continue to experience postpartum depression. Leading up to the show, I received so much attention from the entire art world. These days, though, fewer people are liking my Instagram posts, and I’m not getting invited to events as much. I thought I’d broken through to another professional level and made new friends, but today I’m still an independent curator —and, more painfully, the biennial artists I selected aren’t conferring with me. What happened?
Your independence as a curator is a metaphor for your loneliness as a human. Curating a biennial is a significant achievement that lasts longer on your résumé than it does in the memory of those who attended it. You got used to fake friends and sycophants without realizing that you actually needed them more than they needed you. Cherish the people who stuck by your side without unfriending or secretly muting you. If that’s not enough, then the only way to fill your void, sadly, is to curate another biennial.
This article appears in the November/December 2021 issue, pp. 22–23.