The Infamous World of Art Forgery

For every beautiful masterpiece created by a laboring artist, there is an equally capable and no less idealistic forger ready to make as much money as possible.  Throughout time people have been passing off forgeries as originals to bilk the prospective art collector out of their money, but some of them have gone above and beyond mere imitation to become famous in their own right.  These forgers have been reviled and celebrated themselves by all kinds of people for doing what they do, and they will go down in history for their efforts.  While art forgery is a serious matter and extremely detrimental to the field of art collecting and the creation of art itself, it is no less interesting and noticeable to examine and study these infamous names.

A Short History of Art Forgery

As a tradition that has been going on for thousands of years, art forging has been around as long as people have been creating art.  For every piece of beautifully conceived work, there has always been someone to come along to copy it for personal gain.
The first known forgers date back to the Roman times, where Roman sculptors created forgeries of Greek works of art in order to sell them to prospective buyers.  Back in those times, however, the identity of the artist wasn’t as important as it became to society in later times, so the buyers weren’t necessarily concerned with the authenticity of the product.
In the Renaissance times, it wasn’t necessarily seen as art forgery – masters would often take on students who would copy their works to learn technique and style and would then resell these practice pieces for a profit.  It wasn’t until around the 15th century where art forgery became known for what it is today.
During this time, art was becoming more and more of a commercial commodity and as such the desire to have authentic copies from deceased artists became much more of a concern for the art collectors.  Faked signatures, marks, and other identifying marks started to appear on works of all kinds.
From then on, art forgery boomed just as the art world itself did.  While risky, the forgery business has been no less than fruitful, with one of the highest-selling fakes being a Cezanne that was sold at Drouot, the primary auction house in France.

Some Famous Art Forgers

These interesting figures have stories all their own, and the way they carried out their plots has been no less than impressive.

Han van Meegeren

Born in Amsterdam in 1889, this painter became one of the most infamous art forgers of the 20th century after being rejected time and time again from various artistic institutions.  His art was “tired and derivative” according to the art critics of his time and he was always laboring under the idea that they were impeding his artistic progress.  After failing in his own career, he decided to prove his skills by forging some of the most famous artists of his time: Borch, de Hooch, and Vermeer, for instance, were all targets of his forgeries.  He was monumentally successful as his paintings did, in fact, pass for the artists he was copying.  He was convicted on art forgery, falsification and fraud charges when he was brought to justice in 1947 and was given the brief stay of one year in prison.  He would die in prison after two heart attacks in December of that year.

Van Meegeren affairs produced by the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. All about Van Meegeren during his trial.

Elmyr de Hory

A Hungarian man born in 1906, de Hory has become infamous for selling over a thousand forgeries to galleries worldwide.  After arriving in Paris after the Second World War, de Hory attempted to make a living as an artist himself.  Not entirely successful, de Hory was impoverished and tried his best to sell his work to make a living.  One day he sold an ink and pen drawing to a British tourist who thought the piece was an original Picasso – taking this idea and running with it, de Hory would go on to distribute his ‘Picassos’ to art galleries around Paris.  He would live a long life and his art forgery was bought for decades with no one the wiser.  Orson Welles himself would eventually create a documentary about the man, titled, “F is for Fake.”

Art Forgery - Elmyr De Hory
Elmyr de Hory

Tom Keating

Another famous forger, Tom Keating was born in London in 1917 and has the claim of creating more than 2000 pieces from a hundred different artists.  Working as an art restorer in his youth, Keating grew to resent to process due to his artistic concerns.  Eventually, he figured he could do more than simply restore art and strove to create original works in the style of another artist.  His first attempt of art forgery was production of a painting created by Frank Moss Bennett.  He would finish the piece, consign it to the West End Gallery, and create many more forgeries in his future.  He was finally arrested in 1977, where he would plead guilty.

Art Forgery Thomas Keating
Tom Keating

Mark Landis

Best known for his questionable donations to various museums, Landis was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1955 and became an infamous forger.  An artist himself, Landis worked on the maintenance of damaged works of art.  He had difficult times in the art world, having purchased an unsuccessful art gallery and would go on to lose more money in a failed real-estate venture.  He would go on to create copies of famous works and donate his art forgery to museums, which he would continue doing for more than twenty years.  The perfection of his forgeries was evident with his uncanny knack for emulating styles.  He was never tried because, since he was donating his work, he never broke the law – donations are not sales, and there was no legal recourse for the museums he interacted with.

mark landis art forgery
Mark Landis

Wolfgang Beltracchi

Also known as the “forger of the century” born in Germany in 1951, Beltracchi admitted to forging hundreds of paintings in a worldwide project which ended up benefiting him millions of euros.  Beltracchi, along with his wife Helene, would sell art forgery of famous art, including Leger, van Dongen, Ernst and more, and would become incredibly successful doing so.  He was not found guilty of his crimes until 2011, where he underwent a 40-day trial and would be sentenced to six years in prison.  He was released in 2015, after serving three years.

Wolfgang Beltracchi
Wolfgang Beltracchi

Michelangelo

The Renaissance master himself, Michelangelo dabbled in forgery throughout his career, before creating some of the most beautiful and enduring works of all time. In 1496 the Cardinal Raffaele Riario was looking to collect a Roman sculpture of a sleeping Cupid.  The Cardinal was an avid collector of antiquities and wished to procure the piece through the art dealer known as Baldassarre del Milanese, who himself purchased it from a young Michelangelo.  The sculpture, however, was a forgery passed off as an antique with the help of his own garden – Michelangelo buried it in the acidic soil of his vineyard to force the statue to prematurely age.The Renaissance master himself, Michelangelo dabbled in forgery throughout his career, before creating some of the most beautiful and enduring works of all time. In 1496 the Cardinal Raffaele Riario was looking to collect a Roman sculpture of a sleeping Cupid.  The Cardinal was an avid collector of antiquities and wished to procure the piece through the art dealer known as Baldassarre del Milanese, who himself purchased it from a young Michelangelo.  The sculpture, however, was a forgery passed off as an antique with the help of his own garden – Michelangelo buried it in the acidic soil of his vineyard to force the statue to prematurely age.

Michelangelo
Sleeping Cupid – Michelangelo

The proceeds from this stunt gave Michelangelo the funds necessary to begin his career, thereby allowing him to embark on his epic, masterpiece-filled career.  Even though it started off on the wrong foot, Michelangelo still gave us some of the most enduring masterpieces of all time, so perhaps it was for the best, in the long run?

Art Forgery Today

Although we have various techniques and systems in place to prevent forgeries, the practice still happens and is still incredibly lucrative.  Despite our best efforts to find and dismantle forgeries and forgers, some lucky few still fall through the cracks and inevitably cause millions of dollars in damages.
In 2011, a portrait by Frans Hals, which sold for $10 million, was determined to contain modern-day materials, much to the dismay of the London art dealer, Mark Weiss.  Many more paintings were connected in this forgery ring and all of them are compromised.  Due to the perfection of the techniques used to forge these pieces, the art world has been reeling – the notion that being a master art collector and critic is enough to detect fraudulent work is unraveling, as the techniques used to forge become better and better.
This isn’t to say that art is compromised as a whole, but prospective art collectors need to understand that forgeries still abound and they must take precautions to protect themselves.

Forgery Moving Forward

It is clear that no matter what preventative measures art collectors, museums, and galleries take to protect themselves, they all have a long and difficult road ahead to stamping out forgeries.  Forgery has been around as long as art itself has been and it shows absolutely no signs of abating.  The problem, essentially, is that if you aren’t extremely vigilant against fakes, someone can always slip one under your nose – this is why it’s essential for anyone trading in It is clear that no matter what preventative measures art collectors, museums, and galleries take to protect themselves, they all have a long and difficult road ahead to stamping out forgeries.  Forgery has been around as long as art itself has been and it shows absolutely no signs of abating.  The problem, essentially, is that if you aren’t extremely vigilant against fakes, someone can always slip one under your nose – this is why it’s essential for anyone trading in It is clear that no matter what preventative measures art collectors, museums, and galleries take to protect themselves, they all have a long and difficult road ahead to stamping out forgeries.  Forgery has been around as long as art itself has been and it shows absolutely no signs of abating.  The problem, essentially, is that if you aren’t extremely vigilant against fakes, someone can always slip one under your nose – this is why it’s essential for anyone trading in It is clear that no matter what preventative measures art collectors, museums, and galleries take to protect themselves, they all have a long and difficult road ahead to stamping out forgeries.  Forgery has been around as long as art itself has been and it shows absolutely no signs of abating.  The problem, essentially, is that if you aren’t extremely vigilant against fakes, someone can always slip one under your nose – this is why it’s essential for anyone trading in precious art to take as many precautionary measures as possible.  After all, when there are hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, who can take the chance of a fake?

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