44-year-old Grant Howard, of Birdhurst Rise, South Croydon, and 45-year-old Lee Parker of Caroline Way, Eastbourne pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud at a hearing on 4 June.
Both received a 12 month suspended sentence and Her Right Honourable Judge Matthews banned both from selling anything on the internet for five years, "from a toothbrush to work of art." They were also ordered to undertake 240 hours community service.
Richard Mandel, prosecuting, said that the pair were both keen Banksy enthusiasts who exploited the weaknesses of an anonymous artist. They sold fake artwork to victims across the UK and overseas, predominantly through the global marketplace of eBay.
Genuine Banksy prints are highly desirable and widely recognised as selling for tens of thousands of pounds. The court heard that as the prices of the highly sought after prints increased, Parker and Howard identified an opportunity in which they could defraud collectors and enthusiasts from all over the world.
The pair orchestrated the fraud by setting up multiple eBay accounts, Paypal accounts and email addresses, thus allowing them to carry on with the deception over a long period of time. If they were challenged by a buyer they would simply refund their money. They also registered with discussion forums and duped other members into buying fake prints. The screen prints they sold bore limited edition numbers and several bore fake ‘Banksy’ signatures and Tag stamps. Many buyers were given fake provenance documents (documents supporting authenticity), to add plausibility to the prints. Richard Mandel, prosecuting, said that on occasion, they used their in depth knowledge of the field to dupe buyers by "blinding them with science."
The pair created the fake provenance documents, including sales receipts, fake bank statements and fake emails purportedly from Pictures on Walls (POW), the company instructed by Banksy to exclusively make and sell screen prints based on his existing graffiti designs. The emails detailed sales history for the pieces and in essence authenticated the artwork as genuine. The pieces were then sold to victims throughout the world via numerous accounts held with internet auction site eBay. Many of the victims were private individuals without large amounts of disposable incomes such as chefs, builders and DJs.
Detective Constable Ian Lawson, of the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Unit, said:
"This was a lucrative and unscrupulous scam in which the culprits had no qualms about ripping off collectors, sometimes to the tune of several thousands of pounds. They set up e-Bay accounts using details of relatives and friends thus spreading suspicion onto these innocent people.
"The gang went to great lengths to deceive their victims and it is only right that they should face the consequences of their actions.
"The harm done by the defendants in undertaking their fraud goes beyond the immediate losses to their individual victims. Buyers’ confidence is vastly important in the legitimate collectors’ market in art. When fraudsters infiltrate fakes into those markets, that confidence is dented, with an inevitable effect on prices, an effect that is bound to be felt by all collectors in the market.
"We would advise anyone looking to invest in art to check each and every piece of provenance right back to the original owner and if possible find an independent authenticating body to check if the piece is genuine. If buying from internet forums and online action sites then take additional care and proceed with caution – names, emails and conversations can all be manufactured for sale purposes."
Officers became aware that fake Banksy prints with limited edition number were being sold, mostly on eBay via accounts linked to Howard and Parker. By working closely with the internet sites involved and POW, officers were able to build the evidence picture against the two defendants.
An eBay spokesperson said:
"We are delighted to hear of today’s sentences, having worked closely with the Metropolitan Police since September 2008 to bring this case to court.
"Our long-standing commitment to this case highlights our intolerance for those fraudsters who attempt to sell fake items on our site. We will continue to build on our work with law enforcement agencies to make sure that justice is served if anyone decides to try their luck."
Several purchasers came forward with prints and provenance documents which were found to be fake, and search warrants were executed at the suspects’ home addresses.
Searches later took place at the homes of friends and relatives whose names had been used to register some of the E-Bay accounts.
During their searches, officers recovered numerous fakes along with tracings of limited edition numbers, tracings of the stamps used by POW on genuine Banksy art work and impressions of the Banksy ‘tag’ stamp used on the prints.
Six months after their original arrest Howard was caught attempting to sell another fake Banksy print in a hotel in London. This particular victim was targeted as a potential buyer via a Banksy discussion forum and later contacted with the purpose of arranging to meet for a sale.
During the investigation more than 120 fake/reproduction prints were recovered, approximately half from the home address of the pair and the remainder from victims. If sold as genuine on the open market, it is estimated they could fetch in excess of £200,000.