Phoenix artist Edgar Fernandez was thrilled to get a call about his artwork recently, given all the COVID-19 fallout of temporary gallery closures and canceled exhibits. Someone he’d never met got in touch, claiming to be an art collector eager to buy one of his works.
But that never happened. Instead, Fernandez became the victim of an art scam — losing money to the so-called collector at a time when artists are facing social isolation and loss of income just like so many of their fellow community members.
“I really want to alert other artists, so the same thing won’t happen to them,” Fernandez told Phoenix New Times.
“The time is ripe for these types of things,” says Chandler art appraiser Peter Held, who spent more than a decade heading ASU Art Museum’s Ceramics Research Center. “It’s always difficult for artists to make a living, and they’re struggling now like everybody else.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way people share and buy art. “Galleries are mostly closed, so artists have been more active on social media,” Held says. “That’s where we see most of the fraud come from.”
That’s what happened to Fernandez. He says he received an email on March 23 from someone who said he had seen his art online. “I would like to purchase some of your work for my wife as a surprise gift for our 10th anniversary,” the email read.
At the time, Fernandez didn’t think anything was amiss, although the person talked about using a shipping agent for the transaction, which involved several thousand dollars. “I have arranged for surprise gifts for my fiancée and understand that surprise gifts can be unconventional,” the artist explains.
Two days later, Fernandez got an email claiming that COVID-19 was “slowing things down.” He was skeptical but kept communicating back and forth with the man, who said he wanted to buy a painting Fernandez created with Martin Moreno during a 2018 event at Phoenix Art Museum.
Long story short, Fernandez got a check from the so-called collector. Then he sent the money back after the man claimed he needed to wait and buy the painting later because his wife has been exposed to COVID-19.
Fernandez says he checked with his credit union several times before sending the funds, but never got any indication there was a problem with the check — until the credit union withdrew $4,700, the amount of the painting, shipping, and insurance for the artwork, from his account. He’s since filled out fraud paperwork at the credit union, filed a police report, and talked with an attorney about his options.
Now Fernandez is hoping his experience will serve as a cautionary tale for other artists. “Since this is a career where you are constantly interacting with new potential art collectors, it can be difficult to guard yourself against people trying to cause you harm,” he says. “Trust your gut, and don’t make any sudden decisions on transactions.”
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After the experience, Fernandez turned to fellow artists and friends for moral support — including Frank Gonzales, an artist who also works as a preparator for Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. “I get these emails all the time,” says Gonzales. “They have a pretty common theme.”
Typically, the fake collector says he wants to buy a piece of art for his wife and plugs in the title of a particular painting. Then, he says he’ll send a check for more than the price of the painting, and asks the artist to send back the extra money. “I won’t hear from them for a while,” Gonzales says, “but then they pop up again.”
Gonzales has several suggestions for artists, including paying attention to the sender’s email address and watching for things like poor grammar. “If an email has some weird cryptic address, don’t touch it,” cautions Gonzales. Avoid giving up too much information and be wary if you ask the person questions, but they don’t respond.
“Unfortunately,” Gonzales says, “some people are using COVID-19 as an opportunity to scam people — including preying on aspiring artists.”