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Hirst, the Art Darling of Forgers

The subject of mega-millionaire artist Damien Hirst divides people into camps. Some  love him for trumping Jeff Koons in controversial inventiveness and others loathe his commercialism and exploitation of animals, such as the notorious cow’s head suspended in formaldehyde (“Out of Sight out of Mind”).

3 hirst Spin painting and dotsIn the last week, a monumental public sculpture by Hirst titled “The Miraculous Journey” was unveiled in Doha, Qatar, that realistically depicts the cycle from conception to birth. As customary with all things Hirst, the work has already gained notoriety, especially in the Mideast where depictions of the human form at any age are relatively rare.

There’s another side to Hirst’s three-dimensional oeuvre. The man has also created, accompanied by a small army of unsung assistants, paintings and prints, some which depict his three-dimensional works, which sell for millions of dollars. They apparently have proven fodder for a growing army of counterfeiters selling fake works of art by real art superstars on Ebay and elsewhere on the web.

In the nation’s largest art market, Manhattan’s District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in March announced the arrest of a 45-year-old man who tried to sell some of Hirst’s Spin Paintings and Dot limited edition prints as the real deal to undercover detectives.

The New York prosecutor’s inquiry has led to a smaller art capital, Laguna Beach.

Last week, Laguna Beach police nabbed two suspected Hirst forgers, Vincent Lopreto, 48, and Ronald Bell, 55, both local residents, after serving search warrants at three Laguna locations at the behest of Vance’s office.

On Friday, Lopreto and Bell made their first court appearance. They are being held at Orange County jail on no bail fugitive warrants from New York; Vance expects to extradite the pair for prosecution there, said Laguna Detective Larry Bammer.

Lopreto had been nabbed before for creating false certificates of authenticity for a set of Hirst’s dot prints, the Washington Times reported last year.

“Police found a large printing press, large sheets of plain printing paper and counterfeit works in various stages of completion,” said Bammer, describing what was seized by police.

Here, Lopreto and Bell allegedly manufactured fake Hirst prints replete with certificates of authentication and signatures at their Jazz Artz Gallery, 1452 S. Coast Highway, and sold them Ebay.

Police also conducted surveillance of the partners shipping their merchandise from a local postal shop to buyers as far afield as Spain and Korea. Since the arrests were made, a Chilean buyer also came forward, identifying himself as a fraud victim, Bammer said.

“Forgery has been thriving as long as there has been art,” said Los Angeles gallerist Jack Rutberg, who deals in older masters from Europe and Latin America as well as an international array of contemporary art. He went on to say that anything with popular appeal or notoriety will be ripped off, that nothing specific is driving forgeries of art.

“The good news is that there are so many bad fakes that are easy to avoid, but there are also buyers who are naive or unwilling to do their due diligence,” he said.

Even experienced dealers confront countless fakes; the only secure way to buy art is to establish trust relationships, Rutberg said. “People who go online to buy art expecting to get something for nothing get exactly what they are really bargaining for, nothing for something,” he said.

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