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Conmen avoid jail for selling fake Banksy prints

A pair of "old-fashioned conmen" who pleaded guilty to selling fake prints they claimed were the work of graffiti artist Banksy avoided a jail sentence today.

Lee Parker, 45, and Grant Champkins-Howard, 44, sold copies of genuine numbered prints on the internet shopping site eBay, Kingston Crown Court in south west London heard.

Passing suspended sentences of 12 months for both men, Judge Suzan Matthews said: "Neither of you should be under any illusion that I regard both of you as nothing more than a pair of old-fashioned conmen.

"You saw a way, and exploited a way, of making a quick and easy profit."

The court heard the pair, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud, were fans of the anonymous Bristol-based graffiti artist and had collected posters and prints of his work for years.

Prosecutor Richard Mandel said they decided to cash in as his work became more valuable and made more than £50,000 by passing off their copies as being from official limited-edition numbered print runs made early on in the artist's career.

The original prints, which were initially sold by a company set up by the artist's agent, are now sought-after collector's items.

Mr Mandel said they forged ownership documents and added official numbers and stamps to some of the prints, which then sold for up to £2,000.

The court heard they tried to cover their tracks by refunding some customers when they complained.

Mr Mandel said they used eBay to ensure a "global marketplace" for their fraud which undermined people's faith in the wider art market.

Mr Mandel said: "It stands to reason that persistent fraud on eBay undermines the integrity of that now very important marketplace."

The pair were arrested in April 2008 after suspicions about some of the prints being sold were raised on an internet forum.

Philippa McAtasney QC, defending Parker, said he had offered to re-mortgage his home to pay back people to whom he sold prints.

She said the self-employed plumber from Eastbourne was "an ordinary, hard-working man".

Nigel Peters QC, defending Champkins-Howard, said his client, a roofer from south Croydon, had already spent 93 days in Wandsworth prison after breaching bail conditions.

Judge Matthews said some of the pair's victims were experts on the works of Banksy while others were more naive.

She said: "Regardless of their knowledge, they were all conned. All were tricked."

She ordered the men to complete 240 hours of unpaid work in the next 12 months and told them they face restraining orders preventing them from selling on the internet.

Costs will be decided at a later hearing.

Two charges of possession of items that could be used in fraud and another charge of conspiracy to defraud were ordered to lie on file.

Speaking outside court, a Metropolitan Police spokeswoman said the force recovered 120 prints during the investigation which, if sold as genuine, could fetch more than £200,000.

Detective Constable Ian Lawson, of the Metropolitan Police's art and antiques unit, said it was a "lucrative and unscrupulous scam".

An eBay spokesman said: "We are delighted to hear of today's sentences, having worked closely with the Metropolitan Police since September 2008 to bring this case to court.

"Our long-standing commitment to this case highlights our intolerance for those fraudsters who attempt to sell fake items on our site. We will continue to build on our work with law enforcement agencies to make sure that justice is served if anyone decides to try their luck."