In 1492 in Renaissance Italy, ancient Roman statues were all the rage. So, a 21-year-old sculptor decided to try his skill at creating one. He carved Sleeping Eros out of marble, and then deliberately aged it. His creation was a success—the newly minted statue was sold as a Roman antiquity to a relative of Pope Sextus IV.
That early forger was Michelangelo.
It’s unclear whether the famous artist deliberately set out to make some money selling a forgery or whether he was just having some fun and testing his skill; his biographies contain some discrepancies, according to writer Noah Charney. But what is clear is that this story demonstrates just how complicated the issue of art forgery can be. If one of the greatest sculptors of all times once created and sold a forgery, how could it be so bad?
A new book by Charney, The Art of Forgery (available now from Phaidon), takes a look at the masterminds behind the art world’s greatest cons, and what motivates these men (yes, according to Charney, there are “no notable female forgers in the history of forgery”… that we know of) to spend their often prodigious talent creating works that are passed off as the genius of others.
There is something truly compelling about art forgery. Amid a popular fascination with crime (we live in the Law & Order era, after all), this genre seems to have more of a merry prankster vibe than that of purely sinister wrongdoing. Charney points out that art forgery often seems victimless—the people most frequently hurt are rich buyers and sellers, who don’t attract a lot of popular sympathy to begin with.
And the repercussions for forgery often reinforce this idea, resulting in more perks than punishments. It’s rare for forgers to receive serious jail time, and many emerge from the ordeal with more fame and opportunities than they had to begin with, including an increased price tag on their original work (as well as their discovered “original” forgeries).
John Myatt, a forger of early 20th-century artists—police think he created over 200 forgeries during his illicit career—today sees profits in the tens and hundreds of thousands for his own works of art as well as his “high-profile ‘genuine fakes,’” now signed with his own name, of course.
Another life of crime that paid off is that of Wolfgang Beltracchi. Beltracchi was released from a German prison in January after serving a six-year sentence. While police have confirmed 58 forged works by his hands, ranging from Picassos to Légers, he claims to have made hundreds. With the help of a few family accomplices, he sold his works to high-profile museums and collectors, including a Heinrich Campendonk to actor Steve Martin.
The extent of his con can be seen in one of his crowning “achievements,” a painting named La Forêt, which he passed off as a Max Ernst (most of the best forgers don’t copy existing works, Charney says, but create new works in the style of the famous artists). The faux Ernst sold for 1.8 million Euros to the Swiss Galerie Cazeau-Beraudiere in 2004, was loaned to the Max Ernst Museum in Germany in 2006, and then landed in the hands of a collector for $7 million, all before it was discovered that Ernst did not in fact create the work.
But far from being cowed by the extent of his deception when he was finally caught, Beltracchi can be seen in photos grinning in court, waiting for his sentence. In early May, four months after leaving prison, an exhibition of his work opened in Munich.
“The story of an artwork, as much as its history and content, increases interest in it and thus its value. There are those who eagerly seek out forgeries for that very reason,” Charney writes.
While art forgers have differing motivations and starting points for their lives of crime, an overarching theme is that of forger as failed artist. Many forgers are driven by either revenge or pride, wanting to give an angry or smirking middle finger to the exclusive art establishment that undervalued their original creations. They want to prove that they are just as good as those artists dubbed masters. Once successful, though, the need for fame and recognition often creeps in.
Lothar Malskat worked in the mid-20th century and claimed to have produced 2,000 forgeries, an assertion Charney says “sounds dubious.” One of his biggest works was a series of medieval frescoes that he and an accomplice claimed to have found while restoring a church in Germany. Once this “discovery” achieved national attention, Malskat wanted the artistic credit. But when he announced that the frescoes were actually forgeries by his hand, no one believed him. Not finding this response acceptable, he hired a lawyer and sued himself. He proved in court that he had committed fraud by directing viewers to some playful details he had included in the fresco (like turkeys, which didn’t exist in that part of the world at the time the frescoes were originally believed to have been painted). Malskat was eventually sentenced to 20 months in prison. With celebrity in hand, his career took off once he was released.
“His situation captures the tension inherent in so many art forgers: they enjoy their passive-aggressive success for a time, knowing they have fooled the experts, but at a certain point knowing a secret is no fun unless you can share it,” Charney writes.
It’s great fun to read the stories of these secrets, and that is part of the problem. Charney wants readers to understand that forgery is a crime with serious consequences, maybe not always for the perpetrator, but, at the very least, for the history and scholarship of art.
But art forgery is just so damn entertaining. Its history is dotted with funny stories and schemes by crafty individuals, many with undeniable artistic talent.
There’s the forger Tom Keating, who included “time bombs” like Malskat’s turkey in all of his works that surely gave him an added burst of satisfaction when they were overlooked by the so-called experts.
There’s the Vermeer forger Henricus Anthonius van Meegeren who went on trial for treason after it was discovered that he sold a “Vermeer” from his collection to Nazi mastermind Hermann Göring. In order to avoid a death sentence, he had to prove that he was actually an art forger who had duped Göring into buying a fake Vermeer. In a weird turn of events, he found himself facing off against the expert who had originally—and mistakenly—authenticated the work and was holding fast to the claim, concerned about his reputation. Ultimately, van Meegeren proved he was the artist and “went from Nazi collaborator to folk hero, labeled ‘the man who swindled Göring.’”
Then, there’s the forger Eric Hebburn, who took so much pleasure in the actual process of creating a forgery, that he is one of the few who, Charney says, “could stand strong among the Renaissance greats he forged.” Every last element was perfect. The reason we know about him today? He helpfully wrote a manual about his craft that Charney calls “both entertaining and informative,” The Art Forger’s Handbook.
Except for Hebburn, Charney says most of the renowned forgers weren’t that good—their success was mostly achieved through “confidence tricks” rather than true “greatness.” But it’s hard to ignore a hint of respect and enjoyment that seems to be woven through the book.
We all have a stake in catching the forgers—it’s how we have the stories of their exploits to tell, after all. But, by then, the damage is already done.
“The problem is, of course, that once real archives have been impregnated with fake historical evidence they are poisoned.”
It’s hard to whole-heartedly cheer for a good art con after you realize the extent of the damage. The case isn’t necessarily closed after the criminal has been nabbed and lightly slapped on the wrist.
Paradoxically, many in the art establishment are reluctant to admit that a formerly great work of art is a forgery. Museums and connoisseurs don’t want to cop to being not quite the experts they originally thought, and buyers don’t want their big purchases to suddenly lose value. While some, like the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Gallery in London, have chosen to explore the roots and causes of art forgery in dedicated exhibitions, by and large the experts who are responsible for claiming that a da Vinci is a da Vinci are reluctant to admit when that da Vinci turns out to have been painted by Joe Shmoe in his backyard shed.
By the end of The Art of Forgery, you realize that forgeries are everywhere. Many major museums contain works of art that have been uncovered as misattributed (and have updated their descriptions appropriately). But more frighteningly, even when a forger is uncovered, the full fruits of his labor aren’t necessarily exposed. In story after story, there are disparities between how many works the forger claims and how many have been found. There are little glimmers left in the eyes of the “artists,” who don’t seem compelled to reveal (if they even know) the identity and location of all of their false works. In just one example, Charney writes that Scotland Yard believes that over 100 works by Shaun Greenhalgh, a forger in the London countryside, are still at large.
Once you’ve been clued in to the world of art forgery and recovered from the excitement of a good caper, you’re left with an itch in the back of your brain. You start thinking about all of the incredible works you’ve seen in museums around the world, and you can’t help but ask yourself, “But was it real?”