Art Forgery. A way to make some bucks!
(Don’t do it. Well, if you’re that good, absolutely do it! But sign a name that isn’t the artist you are forging, so it is faking, but not defrauding. Not ‘Claude Monet’ but ‘Maude Clonet’, his little known half cousin.)
Copying masterpieces has always fascinated me. How did Rembrandt make his work glow? How did Van Gogh paint such vivid pictures in a single day? How did Van Eyck and Vermeer achieve such photographically correct perspectives? And who are the people who somehow ‘cracked the code’ and were able to seamlessly duplicate old masters? And how did they fool the ‘experts’?
Some artists realize they have the talent and aptitude to make convincing copies or fakes, but whose work do you copy? Well, whatever is hot on the re-sale auction circuit…so old European paintings and a few famous but dead modern painters.
You might also fake antiquities, but better really really know your stuff. While provenance is very difficult to verify and authentication is tricky the materials are still available because what has survived is still here (metals, stone, clay) and the work can be modest in size.
Forgeries of more traditional paintings, however, make the biggest bucks. And for decades fooling the experts was possible, until science caught up to the forger. In reading about the successful frauds it’s clear that there were many experts whose greatest expertise wasn’t in truly knowing the paintings and the artists, but memorizing lots of printed information about artwork and photographs of the artworks in question, with limited study of the originals. So basically these people are professional academics, better at the politics of their careers than the substance of their study.
The reason forgers can fool such professional ‘experts’ is that the forgers do the work. And by doing the work they learn intimately how the artist they are emulating thought and felt and acted. This is the only way to reveal the methods and secrets that make the artwork unique. I know first hand. You cannot truly know until you have successfully done it. This deep knowledge is experiential. And I can guarantee you that no ‘art expert’ has taught himself or herself how to compose, collage and paint like any of the artists in whom they are supposedly complete experts. Which means they really don’t know.
Fortunately for the ‘expert class’, real success as a forger is almost impossible today because the materials are no longer available. You can get old paper and old canvas, but there are no stashes of 300 year old dry pigments, ancient bottles of sun bleached oil or cakes of bee’s wax from which to make the paint. Newly made pigments, even if from the same sources as the old ones, now have chemical or radioactive ‘signatures’ courtesy of our modern age, and thus ultimately prove the work a fake. Not to mention that about a quarter of the Renaissance palette simply does not exist anymore. When was the last time you picked up a big tube of smalt? I thought not.
So, yes, you might get really lucky and score a dabbler’s paint box from the 1800’s in some junk sale, but you aren’t going to make a career out of the contents.
At one time a highly skilled artist could make a really good living knocking off exacting replicas of European masters (because those copies still sell) but the Chinese took over that market in the ‘90s. (And naturally ruined it for themselves by vastly over-producing. Want a nice Monet? There are six shops on this street alone with perfect copies!)
One could more successfully forge work from about the 1900’s on and I suspect that this is being done.
But then we enter the current modern age of conceptual art and multi media and giant sized supports and stolen (I mean appropriated fair use) images and materials, and found items (yeah, garbage), image fragments and computer generated content and installation art and extremely detailed record keeping and suddenly forgery is daunting. But can still happen.
Aboriginal artist Norval Morrisseau, arguably Canada’s most famous native artist, was forged extensively for a decade when he was still alive but in poor health and hardly producing, by a small team of people who actually knew him!
Honestly tho’, there is so much conceptual work out there from the last 15 to 20 years, composed of a hodgepodge of found items, crude handiwork, industrial cast offs, photographs, computer manipulations, sometimes painting sometimes printing sometimes video, and whatever else did not take a long time to produce. How might that weird and wonderful stuff be forged? And will it be worth the effort? No one knows.
One thing is certain: the forgers of the future will have gigantic egos, because they have always had so in the past. (Or at least the ones who got caught!)
I have read of two forgers whose names I’ve never found. One is French Canadian and the other a New Yorker. The Québecquoi was caught and convicted of fraud but the only reference I can find is a newspaper report from the ‘90s that does not mention him or her by name. The New Yorker is a gentleman who has mastered the impressionist style and for decades produced work so good it is known that disreputable middlemen have applied signatures and passed them off as originals. Some are in museums!
That said, here’s a list of famous (caught) forgers, all of whom were called or believed themselves to be the World’s Greatest Forger.
Han van Meegeren
“Dutch painter and portraitist, considered to be one of the most ingenious art forgers of the 20th century.” Educated in classical European methods in the early 1900s, Meegeren made all his own oils, hand ground his paints from old raw ingredients (still widely available), and painted on 300 year old canvases. He even made his own brushes. “It is estimated that van Meegeren duped buyers out of the equivalent of more than US $200 million in 2020’s money”, including the government of the Netherlands.
He was eventually caught and sentenced to one year in prison but became a national hero after WWII for duping the Nazis. Sadly he died just after his trial of a heart attack. He was 58.
Elmyr de Hory
“With over a 1000 fake pieces to his name, Elmyr de Hory is one of history’s most prolific forgers. Arriving in Paris after WW2, his original intention was to become a reputable artist. However, after passing off a drawing modeled after Picasso to a British woman, he decided that being a fake merchant was the best way to solve his financial problems.”
de Hory was a charismatic con man as well as master forger, but also a terrible business person. He was never convicted of forgery because he didn’t sign his fakes. Two other men, Legros and Lessard, signed the fakes and sold the paintings. They kept millions of profit while de Hory got a few hundred a picture. He died in 1976.
Most active in the ‘70’s and 80’s. Self taught and stunningly meticulous in execution. Gary Helton, an investigator for a California district attorney called Tetro “one of the two major [art] forgers in the United States.”
Tetro made a fortune selling his fakes and was caught and penalized. He went legit.
One of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history. Self taught, works extremely quickly. Produces smaller works mostly on paper. Gives them away to museums and art institutions. Has psychological issues and wants the praise not the money.
“For the past 30 years (since the late 80’s) Landis has approached dozens of museums and university galleries (with his forgeries) in multiple states claiming to be a wealthy philanthropist with a collection he wished to donate.”
Less active today, but since he didn’t get money, only glory, he broke no laws.
A formally trained and brilliant technician (he even made his own inks exactly as the masters had), the English artist’s original work was panned by the art community. So for a living (he made millions), he moved to forgery in the 80’s and 90’s.
“Hebborn, one of the 20th century’s greatest visual artists, but not for his own work, (was) always a troublemaker, a master forger who created nearly identical copies of famous art works…his penchant for pirating paintings and drawings has been known for more than three decades.”
He was caught, then moved to Italy and was murdered in 1996. Some suspect he duped Mafia higher-ups and was killed for it. (There’s a lesson for you.)
This guy figured out how to perfectly copy Giacometti sculptures. He sold around 8 million Euros in fraudulent art and when discovered, lit out to Thailand, where he lives like a king, reportedly “hiding out on a beach somewhere.”
Wolfgang is our current King of Forgers. Active in the 2000’s, he lost count of his fakes, somewhere between 1000 and 1300. He concentrated on more modern masters. His wife acted as the middleman, to get the forgeries into the art markets.
Described as the “forger of the century,” it is estimated that hundreds of his works are still in circulation. The authorities caught up with him in 2010, and he was sentenced to jail the next year. He now sells knockoffs he signs with his name.
Thomas Patrick Keating and John Myatt
“Thomas Patrick Keating was a forger with a cause. He started faking works in order to rail against “avant-garde fashion, with critics and dealers often conniving to line their own pockets at the expense both of naïve collectors and impoverished artists”.
His fakery of Samuel Palmers was so good that others are now faking his fakes!
John Myatt “has been described as committing the biggest art fraud of the 20th century. Along with his accomplice John Drewe, he has faked over 200 different artists.” Myatt made the art but Drewe was the real shyster and has remained in trouble. Both were caught, Myatt did a short stint for fraud and then went legit.
Sadly, not all forgers make the bucks.
Qian, a dual Chinese American citizen working in New York city, was paid a pittance compared to the sales of his work. During the 1990s various middle men and a couple of galleries perpetrated the fraud – a U.S. “$33m fraud scheme”. This may have been the largest art fraud in dollar terms. Qian got a few thousand a picture from three brokers who marked up his paintings 300 – 400 percent, and the galleries marked up the work another hundred percent. The middlemen got rich, the galleries got rich, the gallery agents got rich and Qian fled back to China, where he lives in very modest retirement. One gallery had to close, some money was paid back to some collectors, but the real crooks never went to jail.
Depending on your social skills and business savvy, you can still make a bundle. However, you will be breaking the law if you deliberately sell the work as something it is not (fraud), sign a famous artist’s name (forgery), or get paid for the work by a business associate you know intends to commit a fraud with your work (conspiracy to defraud).
On the other hand, if you honestly mimic another artist’s style perfectly and do not apply a signature, and never talk with the buyer about your work or how they do their business, then you have ‘plausible deniability’, just like all the Wall Street croo…er traders who took huge profits from our investments while actually losing billions of our money with their legally suspect schemes, back in 2008.
And don’t think famous artists are above dodgy behavior. Rembrandt over spent and went bankrupt when the Dutch economy tanked, so to avoid creditors (who would have taken almost all he earned for the rest of his life) he had his wife and son form a company that purchased all his supplies and paid him a salary. The company made the commissions and sold the finished paintings, making Rembrandt just a worker… but owning all he produced, so the creditors couldn’t touch it.
This is why there are no partially finished Rembrandt works from the end of his career. When he died creditors were allowed to go into his studio and take whatever they could, to sell to settle their debts. To their disappointment there were many incomplete works, some large, but none anywhere near finished. Not even with discernable objects or people. What they described was abstract art – mind blowing at the time!
Not knowing what they had, all the canvases were sold as art scrap and disappeared forever. Out there somewhere are dozens of oil paintings from the Dutch Age (post October 1669) under which are the Master’s abstract or unfinished works!
These lessons from history are simple: the experts are fallible, the middlemen always profit, no one really knows anything for certain and you might as well do whatever you can that makes the biggest bucks! (But don’t break the law.)
Rark Mothko, 2020