September and October 2012
Found and Lost: A $7 Renoir Painting

A small painting was among the plastic toys and trinkets in a $7 box lot bought a few years ago at a flea market. The buyer wanted the painting's elaborate frame, but she noticed that the painting had the name "Renoir" on the front. When she took the picture out of the frame, her mother told her to contact an expert because the painted river scene looked good. Experts at the auction house she contacted, Potomack Co. in Alexandria, Va., discovered the history of the painting. It was done by Renoir in the 1870s, is named "Paysage Bords de Seine" ("Banks of the River Seine"), and was included in a French gallery catalog by name, number, and photograph. The painting had been bought by Herbert May, a Maryland collector, in 1925, and was loaned to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1937. It was stolen in 1951. How it got to the flea market is still a mystery. An auction scheduled for September 29, 2012, was cancelled.

Investigators are looking for information about the theft, the subsequent insurance payment made to the museum, and the journey of the painting from the museum in 1951 to a flea market in 2010. There may be a legal dispute to decide who owns the painting now--the museum that was paid $2,500 by its insurance company, the May family, the auction house, or the lucky but now unlucky flea market buyer who still needs a picture frame. The 6-by-10-inch painting is estimated to be worth more than $75,000.

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Photo: The Potomack Company

August 2012
Fake Elvis Hair

A bottle filled with "Elvis Presley's hair" sold at a 2003 Mastro Auctions sale for more than $33,000. When the buyer had the hair tested and questioned its authenticity, Mastro refunded his money. But Mastro has been accused of selling locks of the hair at four later auctions. The hair, according to federal prosecutors in Chicago, is fake. William Mastro, who ran the auction house and has also been accused of selling sports memorabilia with fake provenances, has pleaded not guilty to a federal charge of mail fraud. Other questionable memorabilia was sold by the auction house, which closed in 2009. See the next story.

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August 2012
Auction House Charged with Altering Honus Wagner Card

The T206 Honus Wagner card bought for $451,000 by Wayne Gretzky and his partners in 1991 may have been trimmed before the sale to increase the card's value. Mastro Auctions, of suburban Chicago, handled the sale, and owner Bill Mastro and other Mastro employees have been indicted on fraud charges involving the Wagner card and other rigged sales. Mastro Auctions closed in 2009. The baseball card, known as the "Gretzky T206 Wagner," has been sold and resold a few times since the mid 1990s. It is now owned by Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick. He paid $2.8 million for it in 2007.

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July 2012
Buried Coins Worth Millions Found after 30-Year Search

A buried treasure worth $15.6 million was found on a farm in Jersey, an English Channel island. The island is off the coast of France but is a British Crown Dependency. About 50,000 bronze and silver coins from the 1st century B.C. were unearthed by two English treasure hunters. French law may give the coins to the owner of the farm and the treasure hunters. British law claims the coins for the Crown. The finders had been searching for the treasure ever since a few coins were found 30 years ago. There was no decision about who gets the gold by the end of 2012.

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May 2012
Multimillion-Dollar Stradivarius Cello Damaged in Fall May 2012

A 17th-century Stradivarius cello fell off a table while being photographed in Madrid, Spain, in April 2012. A 19th-century repair--a replaced piece inserted between the cello's neck and body--broke. The cello will be repaired, but damage often lowers value. The estimated value of the cello is $26 million. In 2012 a Stradivarius cello sold in New York for a record price that was announced as "over $6 million." Prices of Stradivarius violins have been going up. They sold for five digits in the early 1900s, but in June 2011 one auctioned for $15.9 million. Stradivarius built 60 to 70 cellos, but only 63 are known to still exist.

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Photo: Stradivarius violin from the April 2012 Tarisio auction

June and November 2012
Warning: Chinese Bidders Sometimes Refuse to Pay

Auction houses had trouble with some Chinese bidders over the past year. They bid the highest price for an item, then ask for a discount or just don't pay. Millions of dollars in bids have been involved. The auction house has to try to collect or decide to take legal steps. The seller doesn't get paid, and the item when resold brings a lower price because buyers fear that an unrevealed problem exists. Some auction houses are now requiring a deposit of $50,000 or more before they take bids on expensive items. Elite Decorative Arts of Boynton Beach, Fla., included this in its June 24, 2012, catalog description of a carved rhinoceros horn that had been purchased in a March auction for $250,000: "This lot is being relisted due to non-paying Auctionzip bidder Xiangtai Zhao (King779) from Shanghai, China. Beware of this bidder." Prices for Chinese antiques have gone down dramatically in 2012 partly because of refusals to pay and partly because of new endangered species laws forbidding sales of items like elephant ivory or rhinoceros horn carvings. In 2002, a rhinoceros horn cup was estimated at $4,000 to $6,000. Then in 2011, a $1.5 million estimate for a collection of the cups on "Antiques Roadshow" and the "medical" demand for ground rhinoceros horn (which pushed the price to $30,000 a pound), set off a flurry. Prices went up to $573,000 for a large carved cup in 2011. By December 2012, some cups were estimated at $2,000 to $4,000 and few were selling. Chinese porcelain, jade, ivory, and furniture were also caught up in illegal negotiations for lowering prices on winning bids. Prices have fallen by 50 percent for all but the top 20 percent of items. It is a serious problem for auctions. Auctioneers are working on ways to stop this habit and to force high bidders to obey the law and pay what is bid.

September 2012
New Light Bulbs a Problem for Old Light Fixtures

Antique lamps may be obsolete in a few years. The ban on traditional incandescent electric light bulbs and the configuration of the new LED, halogen, and compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs is making built-in spot lighting in old houses and lamps obsolete. The 100 watt bulb is gone. The 75, 60, and 40 watt bulbs will be discontinued in 2013. New bulbs are more efficient and more expensive. Many existing light sockets can't use them. Specialty bulbs like candle flames and globes are not yet made in quantity, some not at all. Old houses may require that an electrician change ceiling fixtures, rewire lamps, or install extenders to use a new bulb. A built-in recessed bulb that gives the same amount of light may be too large to fit. The only hope: You can buy a supply of old bulbs and hope that new ones keep improving to give more light, cost less money, and adapt to old fixtures.

August 2012
Three Indicted for Selling Fake Tiffany Lamps

Criminal charges were filed against three Atlanta residents accused of selling fakes. The three, including an Atlanta auctioneer, were indicted for crimes resulting from selling over $700,000 worth of fake Tiffany lamps. The FBI is interested in learning about any other fraudulent Tiffany lamps that might have been sold in the past few years.
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Photo:, Golden's

October 2012

Insurance Cheat Charged

A collector from St. Paul, Minn., filed insurance claims for artwork and other collectibles he said were stolen in 2007. He collected $254,000. So when he later listed some of the same pieces with an art brokerage firm, they were identified as stolen. Investigators searched the collector's house and found other "missing" works. The man has been charged in federal court with wire fraud. To check records of stolen art, use the public listings of expensive stolen art and antiques. The records go back many years. The Art Loss Register (ALR) is a private database of art and collectibles. There is a charge to access it. The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) is a nonprofit research organization anyone can join.

December 2012
Reality TV Show "Storage Wars" Isn't Real

The TV series "Storage Wars" is being sued by a fired star. He claims the show "seeded" storage lockers with valuable collectibles to add interest. Finding valuable items in abandoned storage lockers is rare, but it can happen. We have heard from insiders about other reality shows that attract collectors with exciting objects brought in for the show to make it interesting. We did an episode of our show, "Flea Market Finds with the Kovels" (now available on DVD), with a woman who set up a table for the first time because she had found a doll collection in an abandoned storage locker. She was selling reproductions alongside very valuable dolls, some from the 19th century, but was guessing at prices. We joined several dealers at the show to help her put appropriate prices on her things. She was delighted with her profit.