By STUART DYE
The Consumers' Institute is hunting for Mr X - the man believed to be behind a long-running art fraud.
The man is believed to have netted hundreds of thousands of dollars by passing off mass-produced prints as original work by up-and-coming artists.
The institute believes one man, based in Auckland and probably working with others, is behind the scam.
He travels to Asia and buys huge quantities of cheap factory-line prints.
These are distributed to organisers in cities around New Zealand. They, in turn, recruit backpackers to pose as artists and sell the prints door to door.
Simon Fisher, director of Auckland Fisher Fine Arts, said the scam had been going on for years.
He had been approached by two people who claimed to be from an Israeli art school.
He said the pictures were no better than posters, and warned against being duped.
The lack of brush-strokes that would be apparent on an original artwork was a tell-tale sign.
"But they are often printed on rough-textured paper so it can be difficult to tell."
Mr Fisher said he had seen several of the prints turn up at framing galleries.
"There will be a lot of disappointed people if they get them valued," he said.
Christchurch woman Amy Simmons is one victim of the scam.
She was sympathetic to the "art student" and, thinking it would be nice to have original works in her home, splashed out $1000 for six paintings.
Since learning about the scam she cannot bear to hang the pictures.
Known as "Hong Kong horrors" in the art world, the prints often sell for up to $200 but are worth a fraction of that.
In March last year three backpackers, two Chileans and an Israeli, were prosecuted in Dunedin District Court in relation to the con.
For each painting they sold they received $60, the local organiser got $20 and the remaining $70 to $110 was sent back to Mr X in Auckland.
In just three weeks the trio had made $15,000 through fraudulent sales.
They were discharged without conviction after the sentencing judge agreed they were "minnows" in the scheme.
Phil Mitchell, from the Consumers' Institute, is appealing for help to catch Mr X.
"If this is going throughout the country - as we suspect - it could mean thousands of people and an awful lot of money," he said.
The institute warns people to be wary buying anything sold door to door, particularly when no established company is involved.
* The Consumers' Institute believes a man based in Auckland travels to Asia and buys cheap prints known as "Hong Kong horrors".
* He then distributes them to organisers around NZ who recruit backpackers to pose as artists and sell the prints door to door for about $200.
* Backpackers get $60, local organisers get $20, and $70 to $110 goes to the ringleader.