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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  • Anonymous

    Ah, we must be talking about their agent, Dror Menachem, right?
    And of course all those paintings of Chagit Penn…

    The real problem I heard, is that these people work in pairs, where once they manage to get into your house, one of them asks to use the bathroom, while in fact, they use this opportunity to go snooping around the house, stealing things like jewelery and cellphones.
    While we are not missing anything, one of them did ask to use the bathroom…?
    A friend of mine told me about how the apparent scam works. I’ve since researched it on the internet, and I’ve seen a couple of different reasonings.
    The first and most innocent, at most, these people just sell you over-priced paintings to fund their travelling. Then I’ve read that they sell mass reproductions and claim for these paintings to be original. (Most people however claim that the paintings they bought are originals.) And then of course there’s the version where they steal from you while “holding the painting to your wall to see how it matches the colour.”

    I find it truly disconcerting that the world has come to this. If I just paid too much for my painting, then so be it. It’s a nice painting and I like it. But it does leave bit of a bitter feeling with me whenever I look at my Jerusalem scene, as I know these people have forever scarred my faith in yet another country – Israel.
    So everyone, please beware!

  • Anonymous

    Ah, we must be talking about their agent, Dror Menachem, right?And of course all those paintings of Chagit Penn…The real problem I heard, is that these people work in pairs, where once they manage to get into your house, one of them asks to use the bathroom, while in fact, they use this opportunity to go snooping around the house, stealing things like jewelery and cellphones.While we are not missing anything, one of them did ask to use the bathroom…?A friend of mine told me about how the apparent scam works. I’ve since researched it on the internet, and I’ve seen a couple of different reasonings. The first and most innocent, at most, these people just sell you over-priced paintings to fund their travelling. Then I’ve read that they sell mass reproductions and claim for these paintings to be original. (Most people however claim that the paintings they bought are originals.) And then of course there’s the version where they steal from you while “holding the painting to your wall to see how it matches the colour.”I find it truly disconcerting that the world has come to this. If I just paid too much for my painting, then so be it. It’s a nice painting and I like it. But it does leave bit of a bitter feeling with me whenever I look at my Jerusalem scene, as I know these people have forever scarred my faith in yet another country – Israel.So everyone, please beware!

  • Maskil

    @Anonymous, thanks for the feedback regarding your experience. I didn’t get to finding out Dror’s surname, but I’m sure you’re correct.
    We also never had anything stolen outright, but they did attempt to split us up, by suggesting that they take some paintings through to the bedroom to see how they look.
    My paintings (still rolled up on top of my filing cabinet) are certainly oil on canvas, but I’ve no doubt they were “mass produced” in some paint by numbers fashion, perhaps in the Far East.

    What they are NOT is original works by struggling Israeli art students.

    I attempted to shine a spotlight on the scam by getting letters published in the local Jewish Report and Sandton Chronicle, but no luck there. I really believe that this scourge needs to be tackled by both Israeli and Jewish media around the world. The young Israeli traveller has received a warm reception in most places until now, but if this trend continues, the welcome is going to start getting a little chillier, amongst both Jews and non-Jews.

  • Maskil

    @Anonymous, thanks for the feedback regarding your experience. I didn’t get to finding out Dror’s surname, but I’m sure you’re correct.We also never had anything stolen outright, but they did attempt to split us up, by suggesting that they take some paintings through to the bedroom to see how they look.My paintings (still rolled up on top of my filing cabinet) are certainly oil on canvas, but I’ve no doubt they were “mass produced” in some paint by numbers fashion, perhaps in the Far East.What they are NOT is original works by struggling Israeli art students.I attempted to shine a spotlight on the scam by getting letters published in the local Jewish Report and Sandton Chronicle, but no luck there. I really believe that this scourge needs to be tackled by both Israeli and Jewish media around the world. The young Israeli traveller has received a warm reception in most places until now, but if this trend continues, the welcome is going to start getting a little chillier, amongst both Jews and non-Jews.

  • Susan Western

    Hi, We live in Australia and we’re scammed by 2 Israeli boys last night. My husband was suspicious from the start but I convinced him to buy 1 painting. About 5 minutes after the boys left my husband looked on the internet and found stories like your own. He stopped the cheque immediately and has cancelled the bank account too.
    The little bull shit artists came across sounding very genuine but in reality they are selling mass produced paintings which have probably been bought in some Asian country for $5.
    The thing is, I like the painting we bought and if the boys were honest and said we’ve bought a ton of these paintings, they aren’t priceless but you can buy them for $50 I still would have bought it because the paintings are nice. But instead they are lying to people and in the end got no money from us at all. So whats the point, are they going to sell our bank account details (that won’t do them any good because we’ve cancelled the account anyway). Makes you sick to think that people can be that devious.

  • Susan Western

    Hi, We live in Australia and we’re scammed by 2 Israeli boys last night. My husband was suspicious from the start but I convinced him to buy 1 painting. About 5 minutes after the boys left my husband looked on the internet and found stories like your own. He stopped the cheque immediately and has cancelled the bank account too. The little bull shit artists came across sounding very genuine but in reality they are selling mass produced paintings which have probably been bought in some Asian country for $5. The thing is, I like the painting we bought and if the boys were honest and said we’ve bought a ton of these paintings, they aren’t priceless but you can buy them for $50 I still would have bought it because the paintings are nice. But instead they are lying to people and in the end got no money from us at all. So whats the point, are they going to sell our bank account details (that won’t do them any good because we’ve cancelled the account anyway). Makes you sick to think that people can be that devious.

  • Maskil

    @Susan Western Thanks for sharing your experience. The more people who publically document their experience with these scamsters the better. Hopefully it will help the next guy to avoid being caught.I agree; even if mass-produced in some paint-by-numbers sweatshop, the paintings were still nice enough to buy. What I really, really resent is having the Jewish connection and my Israeli nostalgia exploited. I would have been happy to have the canvasses in my home as “honest” cheap, mass-produced art, bought to help Israeli kids on the road. I’m not happy to have them on my walls with the knowledge that I bought them under the illusion that they were scenes of Israel.Sad to say, I didn’t wake up to the scam until my cheque had already been presented.Once upon a time, Jews worried that dubious actions on the part of their co-religionists would “give the Jews a bad name”. Perhaps it’s time for these youngsters (and their parents and peers) to start thinking the same way about Israelis.

  • Maskil

    @Susan Western Thanks for sharing your experience. The more people who publically document their experience with these scamsters the better. Hopefully it will help the next guy to avoid being caught.

    I agree; even if mass-produced in some paint-by-numbers sweatshop, the paintings were still nice enough to buy. What I really, really resent is having the Jewish connection and my Israeli nostalgia exploited. I would have been happy to have the canvasses in my home as “honest” cheap, mass-produced art, bought to help Israeli kids on the road. I’m not happy to have them on my walls with the knowledge that I bought them under the illusion that they were scenes of Israel.

    Sad to say, I didn’t wake up to the scam until my cheque had already been presented.

    Once upon a time, Jews worried that dubious actions on the part of their co-religionists would “give the Jews a bad name”. Perhaps it’s time for these youngsters (and their parents and peers) to start thinking the same way about Israelis.

  • Sads

    you know, it’s kinda stupid that you relate Jews and the Jewish communities to these scams. They have had nothing to do with it, and they cannot do anything about it, i would even say its racism. If those guys were Germans, do you really think that sending a message to the German community in South Africa was gonna work? it’s stupid.
    Not all Israelis are scams like those guys, and its your problem that you’re stupid enough to buy their bullshit. Many Israelis (MUCH more than the average South African) are Programmers and Engineers, without any money issues.
    About your “jewish peddler” remark, well… as far as I know, most South African Jews have much more money and occupations on high-demand than the average South African, same as the U.S.

    Those people who scammed you are assholes, and you should be aware and learn for the next time, but taking the anger of your stupidity on another ethnic group is even stupider.

    • No Sads, it’s not “kinda stupid”. These scams are what is known as “affinity crimes”, committed by members of the Jewish community against members of the same community (Madoff’s scheme was a classic example of this). This has nothing to do with racism. I’m simply suggesting that Israeli parents warn their travelling offspring against exploiting that ethnic connection in this way.

      I’m not stupid for falling for this scam. Trusting, unwise, deceived maybe, but not stupid.

      “Another” ethnic group? This is my own ethnic group I’m referring to, which you would have realised if you’d read my post (or the rest of my blog) properly. Yes Sads, I’m also a Jew. Does that make you kind of stupid? Some might think so.

      Please don’t ever come and insult me on my own blog again. This is my digital office and I don’t take kindly to that kind of treatment. In my real life office I would wipe your clock for you.

  • One of my friends had a girl who claimed to be an Israeli art student knock on her door last night to try and show paintings.  Looks like it is still going on.

    • Very much so, Pamela.  We also had them at our door just a few evenings ago.

  • Nadia

    It seems they’ve moved to Pretoria East…We were also (nearly) scammed yesterday evening…by a young lady who calls herself Ira. She was so charming. My husband told her that he did not have that kind of money (R2500), she insisted that we could give her a deposit of R200 and that she would return for the balance in 5 days! At this point I was uneasy and nudged my husband telling him that we should think about it as it is a lot of money…she insisted we keep the paintings and that we should think about it. Later the same evening I googled “Israeli student art” and found plenty articles which referred to the scam…anyway I found the website where the paintings can be purchased online http://www.paintingweekly.com – please check it out (all the paintings she had in her “so called portfolio” are on this website (made in China). PLEASE BE AWARE.
    Nadia 

  • Anonymous

    We were scammed. A lady got into our complex just before christmas, she had this portfolio of paintings. I thought they were really nice.One I specifically liked. My husband is always looking for nice paintings so I though great this is a bargain. I didn’t have any cash on me so she said she will come back and she also has bigger paintings. Same story about helping artists all over the world and galleries are too expensive, which they are.  I didn’t suspect a thing, the only thing that was nagging on me was why was she doing this just before christmas. I just thought they were desperate to get them sold and the artists must be struggling. She and another friend came back the next week with their bigger paintings, my husband ended up buying 4 for about R8600. They were all very charming and friendly and I wasn’t suspicious at all, they said they have a framer and if we want he can do it for us and will also charge reduced prices. I can’t believe we were so stupid. Needless to say a week ago the so called “framer” phoned me and set up an appointment. He came last night with his basket full of frames, helped us choose frames and made many comments. I started getting suspicious when he wrote down his prices and the little book he was using, and thought he didn’t look like a business person, but I ignored it. He indicated it would be ready in 3-4 days, and explained how they frame it and how they were a very reputable gallery and framing place. He also said he has been working a lot in pretoria. My husband was working on his computer so he wasn’t really paying attention and just said the price seems ok. I helped him carry the rolled up canvases to his car but still had the nagging feeling, he shook my hand and it was sweaty, which I thought was weird. He gave me his card and said all their details on it. When I got into the house, I immediately checked the card and the numbers on the card was not the same as the one he was phoning me from, I called him straight away, he answered and just said its his business partner. I looked at my husband and said something doesn’t feel right. We started checking the internet and came across all the stories from across the world. At least most of the people got to keep their paintings, we just forked out R8600 and don’t have anything. I really do feel stupid that I invited these people into my home. I cant believe I was so naive, its very humiliating plus my husband is mad at me.

    • R Manikum

      Hi there

      We live in Pietermaritzburg and have been caught by this scam,we want to open a case with the poilce, did you do so too? the police said they could do something about it if there was another case opened also?

      • It didn’t actually occur to me. The scam is dishonest, unethical and an abuse of people’s trust, but probably not illegal. It misrepresents the paintings, but they are paintings nonetheless.

  • Munya

    Haha… The supposed ‘Noa’ in the article just came to my house today. I just didn’t buy the whole art student crap as she looked old enough to be a mother of 3 kids, lol.  

  • Niki

    And so it keeps on happening. Beware Gallo Manor residents and everyone else in the Joburg area. 

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    This afternoon, we were approached by a young Israeli guy with ‘One off prints of original artwork’ (out to South Africa touring the country after being in the military). He displayed small oil paintings first and then said if we’re interested in larger paintings he could call his manager to bring the larger paintings. ‘Ethan’ turned up and proceeded to unload the larger paintings. Both were very charming and friendly.

    Thankfully my boyfriend was suspicious and googled ‘israeli art students selling paintings’ and came up with similar stories (and not just in South Africa). 
    And also came upon your blog post (thank you so much).He promptly told them we weren’t interested and asked them to leave which they did. I then also called our local security patrol car and asked if he could check them out and ask them to leave (he was already suspicious as well). I then contacted our community forum asking if they could send out an email to our suburb alerting everyone to this scam.

    Thanks again, appreciate it.

  • Ettiennevermaak

    Thaks for the warning: Paid a R200 deposit for a painting yesterday (Pretoria). He told me that I can pay the rest at the end of the month (R 1 100).
    Actually qiute happy to get the reproduction for that amount.

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