So we fall victim to the Art Scam in China shortly after arriving to Xian. At the time we were snapping photos in front of the iconic Bell Tower when a local guy comes up to chat with us. It didn’t appear anything out of the ordinary, he was on his ‘work break’ from the Post Office building situated behind us and he just seemed curious to know the visitors. He chats about Xian, Beijing, China, the smog, local food. His current ‘job’ in Xian is only a temp job, he originally comes from Beijing where he works as a professor at one of the local Universities teaching calligraphy and art. All believable. After 10 minutes nattering we make our excuses to go find food and it is at this point he asks for permission to write Fanfan’s name in calligraphy. While a little dubious I play along knowing under no circumstance I would ever part with money. The guy seemed to be a genuine, nice guy so I wasn’t overly intimidated. He takes us to the Post Office building behind us and up the stairs to his ‘office’ which turns out to be a small art studio. At the time I was expecting an open office, desk and pencils.
Inside the Studio
This is where things feel dodgy and at this point we should probably have bailed… but I was curious. The studio had some fantastic views over Xian Bell Tower so I was happy to poke around and photograph (almost worth it). I did have apprehensions however when the guy locks the door behind us and obviously things feel a little more intimidating. While I’m happy to put myself in these situations I should never bring Fanfan along with me. So the scam goes through the motions and the guy sketches Fafan’s name on the canvas. A knock on the door and his ‘student’ enters (likely back from his own search for tourists to scam). The student sits quiet and looks out over the Bell Tower. Then comes the big upping of his work, the quality of materials and how his paintings can make crazy money in auction. “Which one do you like?”… “I don’t really know art, it’s not an interest of mine”. I change the subject, he tries to change it back “So you must like some?”…. “Meh, as far as art goes I’m clueless, I like food”. At this point we’re bored we make our excuses and go to leave. He offers Fanfan the drawing and Fanfan declines “sorry I don’t feel comfortable taking free stuff”. We go for the door and the guy gets a little snide “you know this is worth *some crazy number”…. “It’s nice meeting you. Best of luck” and we’re back out onto the street.
How We Know it’s a Scam?
Everything points to a scam, the location with window views over the most central tourist spot of Xian. Befriend the tourists, wangle them back to the studio, pester them into buying overpriced art. All seems easy. As well when speaking earlier on the street he managed to cut off, at least twice, our excuses and attempts to leave and get food. While the guy appeared to be a genuine, nice guy my parents were once robbed in the centre of Barcelona by a tourist and fake policeman, it is hard to trust anyone these days. The art scam in China is apparently popular and after following the scam in Xian we find something very similar in Beijing Wangfujing area (we decline). While we did put ourselves in a dangerous position we did get some cracking photos of the Bell Tower. Check here for more on Xian.