ART fraud is growing at an alarming pace in Hong Kong as unscrupulous middlemen pass off fakes as originals at astronomical prices. Police warn that they know about the problem but say they have no resources to combat it. In one recent documented case, a copy of celebrated artist Wang Yidong's Yimeng Girl was exhibited in Wan Chai with a price tag of $150,000. The original painting was sold at an auction by Christie's in 1992 for $187,000. The artist was so shocked that his work was copied that he signed the back of a photograph of the fake declaring that it was not his work. The rise in forgeries mirrors the rise in prices for oriental art, with some of the best paintings fetching millions of dollars. Chinese contemporary artists are the most common target for the fraudsters, but emerging art markets like Vietnam are also being targeted. Commercial Crime Bureau Chief Inspector Ken Reed said the reported cases of art fraud probably represented the tip of the iceberg. 'Recently there have been a few fakes that have surfaced, but the police do not have a specific art department or the expertise to investigate these matters,' he said. While overseas police forces have specialist departments to handle cases of art fraud, Hong Kong does not and is easy pickings for the crooks. The message for art buyers is caveat emptor. But even relying on a gallery is no guarantee that what you buy is the real thing. Often it is the galleries themselves who are unaware of the origin of what they are selling and unwittingly pass on forgeries to their clients. Chief Inspector Reed said: 'The art galleries are selling in good faith but are naive in terms of the paintings' authenticity.' Insiders say one of the real problems is that so many new art galleries have opened recently, which are run by people with little knowledge of the art scene and are consequently easy targets for fakers. 'First it was restaurants, then fashion boutiques, and now the trend among the rich set is to open art galleries,' commented one long-time gallery owner. Manfred Schoeni, who owns the long-established Schoeni gallery, has seen it all before. But what is new is the quality of the faked paintings. In previous years fakes were usually much cruder than the originals and were easy to spot to the trained eye. But new technology makes it easier to produce almost exact replicas that are so good even the experts cannot tell the difference. Violetta Wong, vice-president of Christie's in Hong Kong, said it was becoming more difficult to spot faked artworks of contemporary artists. Ms Wong advises purchasers to only go through a reputable dealer or auction house to minimise the risk of being ripped off.