Knowledge is the best protection against the purchase of dubious limited-edition prints, art experts agree.

"You can't expect to avoid these delicate situations if you purchase a work of art in a blind or naive way," said Victor Carlson, senior curator of prints and drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"Know what you're doing," said the Art Dealers Assn. of America's Gilbert S. Edelson. "It's like buying a house or a car: You have to do your homework.

"Before you buy, read and study. Books on artists, on prints, and on collecting are available in stores and libraries. And, go to museums to develop an eye and speak to collectors who know a lot about prints.

"Also, deal with a reputable dealer. The way to find out who is reputable or not is ask someone knowledgeable on prints, such as a curator at a museum," Edelson said.

Carlson said his department will refer print buyers to one of several local galleries (providing the museum knows of a gallery with expertise about the specific artist or area of prints in which the buyer is interested) or to the Art Dealers Assn. of California. This nonprofit organization, (213) 652-7465, will refer callers to one or more of its 50 members who are fine-art dealers.

Joining the museum's Graphic Arts Council, open to museum members only, can help, Carlson said. This museum support group sponsors lectures, workshops and visits to local galleries and homes of private collectors to hone participants' expertise in fine-art prints.

The Art Dealers Assn. of America Inc., (212) 940-7070, also refers callers to its member galleries, though 75% of them are in New York.

Experts also warn against sellers pushing prints as investments or offering special sales.

"Never, never, never buy art from someone who represents it as an investment and tells you that the value will certainly appreciate," Edelson said.

Added Christie's Jennifer Josselson: "The biggest pitfall is people being offered a good deal. I'd be immediately suspect of someone saying, "If you take all five, I'll give you a good deal."

Rebecca Mullane, an assistant New York attorney general, strongly advised against buying prints over the telephone.

If you suspect the authenticity of a print, take the artwork to an appraiser, suggests Art Dealers Assn. of America's Terry De Lapp, then confront the seller or art dealer if the appraisal confirms your doubts. De Lapp said his organization recommends local appraisers, who, he said, charge roughly between $50 and $100.

If sellers are uncooperative, the Los Angeles Police Department's Joe Purmer said, take the problem to the police.

Print buyers should obtain a copy of the California law requiring art dealers to make disclosures about fine-art prints. California Civil Code Sections 1740-1745 list 11 aspects about prints, such as "the authorized maximum number of signed or numbered impressions, or both in the edition." Buyers should make sure their bill of sale includes all of the information required in the law.

More advice for print buyers from Stanley Grinstein, owner of Gemini G.E.L., a local print publisher that prints only living artists' works: "Buy things because you love 'em--not for investment. If an artwork hits you in the gut and you get that spiritual feeling, you can't be cheated."

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