Young Israeli art student scam in South Africa?

by Maskil on September 2, 2008

OK, I admit it. I got ripped off.

Last week a couple of young Israelis (Lior and Noa) talked their way into our home, claiming to be part of a syndicate of ten young art students selling their original oil paintings door to door.

(You’re smirking already? If I’d just read this, I would have probably done the same, but in my defence they were pretty convincing.)

They were friendly, presentable, apparently genuine and sincere, and unmistakably Israeli. They were in no hurry, and spent more than an hour chatting, discussing the work, with plenty of anecdotes about life in Israel as struggling young art students thrown in. Why were they selling door to door? They wanted to get their work on as many walls as quickly as possible, and couldn’t afford gallery overheads etc.

Eventually I handed over a cheque, and they left minus two canvasses, having phoned their supervisor (Dror) to pick them up.

So where’s the scam?

I was staring at my newly-acquired oils from someone who might be famous one day. (What do you mean you’ve never heard of Chagit Penn?) What was bothering me? The scenes looked just a little too generic. They were supposedly of Haifa and Jerusalem in the rain, but they could have been any seaside town, and any city in the rain respectively.

Now seriously concerned, I started Googling search terms such as “young Israeli art student scam”. Judging by the search engine results page, the phenomenon of young Israeli “art students” selling artworks of questionable quality or origin is well known in countries such as Australia, Canada and the US. (There’s also a whole conspiracy theory around them, but that’s something else entirely.) So, I guess they’ve now established themselves in the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg.

If there was ever any doubt, I found my rainy day in Jerusalem during the search, except that the version on the Internet included the Eiffel Tower!

What’s behind this?

Israeli youngsters probably have more reason than most for taking a gap year after military service and before (or in some cases after) tertiary study. I was under the impression, though, that this usually involved a search for spirituality and recreational pharmaceuticals in places such as India, not art-related scams.

South Africa also has a robust tradition of gap year backpacking. In “my day”, this was to escape the claustrophobia of Apartheid and the Total Onslaught. In the 2000s, it’s to escape the claustrophobia of affirmative action and violent crime. Young travellers would do just about anything legal to pay their way, but this was almost invariably an honest day’s work for a day’s (minimum wage or below) pay.

What saddens me about this episode (apart from the financial loss) is that these youngsters are poisoning the well for future waves of young Israeli backpackers and travellers.

The Jewish peddler or “smous” (and later the commercial traveller or “rep”) was once a fixture of the South African landscape, but was almost universally a highly regarded “member” of whatever community he happened to be in, remembered with fondness even decades after his demise. Sadly, however, these “art students” are simply mining the fragile Israeli/Jewish connection (“affinity crime”) to sell their dubious wares and move on. That’s something you can only ever once, whether at the level of the person or the community.

To Lior, Noa (and Dror), you spent enough time with us to see that ours is not an affluent home. The real harm you did was not to me and my family, however, but to your own selves, and to the reputation of the young Israeli traveller, now and in the future.

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