As a self-proclaimed “philanthropist,” Father Arthur Scott has donated hundreds of notable artworks to museums all across the country. Institutions like the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Philadelphia Museum of Art have accepted works by Paul Signac, Alfred Jacob Miller and Louis Valtat. Or have they?
Each museum registrar heard the same story: Father Arthur Scott’s mother has recently passed away and while his sister—still in Paris—settles the estate, he is there to facilitate her wish to bequest the institution with a piece from her collection.
The works came with the proper paperwork, so no one questioned a thing. After all, promises of money and art are these institutions biggest weaknesses. But what seemed like generous donations turned out to be one of the largest, and most unique, deceptions the art world has ever seen—spanning three decades and over 40 museums. Father Scott wasn’t even his real identity—it is Mark Landis—and those Signacs, Millers, and Valtats weren’t real either.
A new film, Art and Craft, which premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival on Thursday, follows 59-year-old Landis from the moment he was exposed to a full-scale exhibition of his forgeries as the man encounters the many people trying to figure out his motives and convince him to abandon them.
Funded on Kickstarter, the filmmakers began the project after reading a riveting 2011 profile on Landis in The New York Times. “When we tracked him down in Laurel, MS, we began the three-year journey of telling Landis’ story and unpacking the complicated impulses and influences that brought him to where he is today,” they wrote in an article for Filmmaker Magazine.
Each work is meticulously copied. Wood is cut to the exact dimensions, sanded and stained to stress the age of the work. A photocopy of the work is pasted onto the wood before being painted over to give the piece its deceiving authenticity. Watercolors are strikingly identical and the charcoal works, done with color pencil, are deceptively perfect.
Landis’ first “philanthropic binge”—as he calls them—occurred in 1987 when he donated his first copy to the New Orleans Museum of Art. But it was not until 2008 that he was caught in the act. A red flag was raised after he met with Cincinnati Museum of Art’s chief registrar Matthew Leininger, who discovered that multiple museums claimed the same pieces.
Since then, the museum registrar has become borderline obsessive in devoting his time to stopping Landis. “I sent a message out through the registrar’s listserv,” he explained in the film, “and within the first hour, my phone was ringing off the hook.” At least 20 museums contacted him that day—all with forgeries of works that appeared in multiple museums.
The task, however, has proved more difficult than he imagined. The fact that Landis is not in it for the money makes it hard for him to be prosecuted. “It wasn’t like Landis went in and [demanded money],” Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI Art Crime Team, explained of what can only be deemed as an act of “ego satisfaction.” “That would be fraud. The fact is that he gave it to the museum for free. It’s up to the museum to determine what they think of it.”
The story of Landis’ folly is exactly what makes this film so captivating. He seems to still seek approval from a father that has long been deceased, while mourning the death of his mother, who his relationship with can only be described as uncomfortably close. The viewer can’t help but empathize for the lone man riddled with schizophrenia and other mental handicaps.
But with no way to prevent the artist from continuing his quests, Leininger and his colleagues decided to give Landis the ultimate gift—an exhibition of his forgeries. “The show focuses on using a predecessor’s work as inspiration versus simply plagiarizing the work,” University of Cincinnati DAAP Galleries director Aaron Cowan says of the exhibition, which plots out a timeline of Landis’ donations, pairing his works with their originals.
Invited to be the guest of honor, Landis was then forced to come face to face with the people that he fooled. In the film, patrons of the arts question why he does it and why he won’t stop—or better yet, why he doesn’t create his own original pieces.
Instead, Landis hinted at his next project—returning lost or stolen works to their rightful owners. The questions remains, though: Does he mean the actual works, or replicas by the world’s greatest forger?
‘Art and Craft’ will be running periodically at the TriBeCa Film Festival through April 26, 2014.