The Rip-Off Artist
by Steve Slavin
I know a young Chinese man named Fong. He grew up not far from Hong Kong, and came here when he was in his early twenties. He had studied painting for years, learning to imitate the work of the old masters.
He arrived penniless, with virtually nothing but a few dozen of his paintings and the clothes on his back. He quickly found a job washing dishes in New York’s Chinatown, and a bed to sleep on in a cramped apartment that was fully occupied by recent immigrants sleeping in shifts.
Slowly, Fong learned some English, and then met a beautiful young Chinese woman who had grown up just a few miles from him. He and Mudan soon found their own tiny apartment in a part of Little Italy where more people spoke Chinese than Italian or English.
Fong was able to resume painting. Their friends admired his work, but none could pay more than a few dollars for one of his beautiful watercolors. Surely, in such a rich country, there were people who could afford his work.
By now, the Soho art scene was going full blast, and customers were spending tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars on paintings by hot young artists with no apparent talent. But most of them did manage to be born into rich families that sent them to fancy art schools, supported them with generous trust funds, and sent their friends and business associates to buy their children’s work.
One day, Mudan told him about her business idea. They would go into business together selling his paintings. Fong listened patiently, but deep down, he knew it would never work.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to humor her. Every evening after work, they would rehearse. If nothing else, they would have a skit that might amuse their friends.
After two weeks, Mudan said that they were ready. They would go to Chinatown where there were several stores that sold watercolors painted by old Chinese masters hundreds of years ago. Most of the customers were very rich Chinese tourists as well as first- and second-generation Chinese Americans.
Few of them appeared to know much about these ancient Chinese masters, but virtually all believe they knew good art when they saw it. If you buy what you like, how can you go wrong? And besides, over time, the value of these paintings could only go up.
Mudan had fully coached him on his pitch. But he was very nervous about their new business enterprise, so she decided to put that nervousness to good advantage.
They walked down to Chinatown the next morning. They had a list of stores that had ancient Chinese watercolors for sale along with more recent paintings. When they entered the first store on their list, the shop owner barely looked up at them. He was on the phone, apparently in the middle of a heated argument.
Finally, when the man got off the phone, Fong approached him and asked very politely in Chinese if he might be interested in buying an ancient Chinese watercolor. The owner looked at him with suspicion. How indeed could this poor guy, probably just off the boat, possibly come to own such a painting?
Then, Mudan joined them, asking in English, “Please, sir, could you just look at it? It belonged to his grandfather.”
Fong kept his eyes downcast as he unwrapped the painting. The owner glanced at it, and then quickly did a double take. How could this country bumpkin possibly have come into possession of such a masterpiece?
It was almost definitely not a counterfeit. After more than twenty years in the business, he was pretty certain he had been tricked no more than two or three times. And even then, he was able to find gullible buyers.
If this one was authentic, he might even be willing to offer as much as five or ten percent of what he estimated it was worth. He was sure it would fetch at least ten or fifteen thousand, even if he was not one hundred percent certain of its authenticity.
But then he began to grow suspicious, since Fong was clearly very nervous.
“OK, how much are you asking for this painting?”
Fong glanced at his girlfriend, who nodded.
“Please make me a fair offer. I will accept an offer that is fair.”
The owner thought this over. Clearly, this peasant had no idea how much his painting was worth. So, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a wad of bills, and started counting them out, “Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, one hundred… one hundred-twenty … one-hundred-forty…
Suddenly, Fong picked up the painting and began wrapping it.
The owner was taken aback. “Perhaps there is a misunderstanding.”
“There is no misunderstanding,” replied Fong. “You are trying to cheat me. That is not hard to understand!”
“OK, let me have another look at your painting.”
Fong glanced at Mudan. She shrugged.
Fong hesitated, and then very slowly unwrapped the painting and placed it back on the counter.
The owner examined it more closely. While there was no way he could identify the painter, he recognized the centuries-old style. He felt the rice paper with his fingertips, and pretty much knew for sure it was definitely the real thing.
But where could this poor soul have possibly gotten this painting? Did he steal it? Did he somehow acquire it from a friend who knew even less about ancient Chinese art?
The owner now began to realize that perhaps this young man actually did have some idea of how much this painting might be worth. Counting out those bills was very stupid of him. Insulting the young man was probably going to cost him.
But before he could offer more for the painting, he had to be absolutely one-hundred percent certain that it was not just a cleverly executed imitation.
He put on what appeared to be a pair of very thick reading glasses. Fong knew he was examining the brush strokes – the ultimate test of authenticity.
Then he removed the glasses and very slowly, almost imperceptibly, he began to shake his head as if he were disagreeing with someone – possibly even himself. He was frowning.
Fong sensed that the man was displeased. But when he glanced at Mudan, she was smiling. She had seen the man clenching and unclenching his fists. Clearly, he was attempting to stifle his emotion.
The owner quickly did a final estimate in his head. He could easily sell this for at least twenty thousand dollars – and possibly much more. Should he make an offer? Or should he ask the young man how much he wanted?
If he offered too little, the young man would probably be infuriated and leave with his painting. But if he offered what was truly a fair price, then that would greatly reduce his customary profit.
Then, he had a much better idea. Trying to sound as casual as possible, the owner asked, “How much do you think would be a fair price for this painting?”
Fong and his girlfriend immediately stepped several feet away and went into a huddle. They whispered back and forth for a couple of minutes. Finally, Fong approached the counter.
“We want four thousand dollar.” He folded his arms across his chest, trying to look determined.
“Three thousand!” the owner countered.
“Three thousand, five hundred and not a penny less!” said the girlfriend.
“In cash!” added Fong
The owner knew he had just seconds to make a decision.
“It’s a deal!”
The next morning, a nervous-looking young man and a beautiful young woman entered a small shop in Brooklyn’s rapidly expanding Chinatown. They glanced around, and then approached the counter.
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books. The third volume of his short stories, To the City, with Love, was recently published.