When crime doesn’t pay

Part 1 of a three-part series on art forgers.

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Like a great heist, art forgeries make for exciting stories. For readers, like me. For acquirers, of course – not so thrilling.

Duped!

…unfortunately, forgery is a huge part of the art world,” said Julia Courtey, curator of the D’Amour museum in Springfield, MA. “It’s estimated that up to 40 percent of the artwork [in museums and private collections] consists of forgeries.”

From important museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s National Gallery to uber galleries including Sotheby’s and Christie’s, major players have repeatedly determined that the provenance of some fakes was true and authenticated it. That’s how great the need is for one-upmanship, to unearth an unknown gem in the art world. But in 20 years, another art expert could come along and un-authenticate the work based on new information. It’s as simple and complex as that.

The great fakes

Thanks to some of the following great forgers – many of whom were themselves artists, art restorers or art dealers – working the inside track to make money became easy. Like most successful art forgers, they painted original works “in the masters’ styles,” which made the forgeries much harder to detect. The forgeries were often authenticated as unknown or lost masterpieces, and were quite a coup for the museums or galleries.

While these three artists produced many forgeries and permanently altered the art world, each was looking for more than money. In the end, they either confessed or lived out their lives on the run.

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1 > Elmyr de Hory: Hungarian artist + forger looking for an occupation

Elmyr de Hory lived a colorful and sketchy life. Most of his early history was reported via novelist Clifford Irving, himself a convicted fraud. de Hory studied painting in Germany and Paris, and spent time in and out of jail for many years, though not for forgery. From the 40s through 60s, he made hundreds of forgeries and duped collectors with his replicas of Picasso, Modigliani and Renoir.

By the late 50s, suspicions were being raised, and by the early 60s, the forgeries were being traced to him. Living in Ibiza and staying one step ahead of the law, he was never directly charged with forgery – a Spanish court could not prove that de Hory had ever created any forgeries on Spanish soil – so he was expelled in 1968.

de Hory suffered from mental illness most of his life. He made little money from the forgeries or from his legit art. In 1976, he overdosed. Following his suicide, his paintings became very valuable.

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2 > Han van Meegeren: Dutch portratist + convicted forger seeking payback

Determined to be an artist, Han van Meegeren’s own work was called “derivative” by art critics. That didn’t sit well with Han, so he decided to show his critics talent of a different kind: Forging work in the Dutch Golden Age style – artist including Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch and specifically Johannes Vermeer.

van Meegeren spent six years perfecting his 1936 Vermeer-like Supper at Emmaus which was authenticated and sold at a high price. With the outbreak of WWII while living in Amsterdam, he continued refining his forging style, and produced many pieces. But in 1942, in ill health under the German occupation, one of van Meegeren’s pieces – a Vermeer of declining quality – was purchased by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.

The painting was eventually traced back to van Meegeren. But even with an ingenious story defending himself against a collaboration charge, he confessed and was convicted of forgery and fraud. While awaiting imprisonment, he had a massive heart attack and died in 1947. He had previously filed for bankruptcy and his estate was sold off. His ex-wife (divorced for a tax haven) was assumed to be worth millions.

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3 > Tom Keating: British art restorer + arrested forger upending the system

Tom Keating was a purist. Even in his revolt against a greedy system, his nearly 2,000 fakes covering nearly 100 artists including many of the Impressionists, were painstakingly realized. He worked in acrylics, watercolors and oils, and spent hours making pigments and canvas preparations.

Keating’s laborious methods served another purpose: To intentionally fool the experts and dupe the system. Born into a poor London family, and pushed aside as an artist in his own right, Keating believed the system was exploitative and greedy, and deliberately set out upend it. He went to great lengths to generate misleading provenances for his paintings, and added flaws and messages to under layers or used materials peculiar to the period purposely.

When an overabundance of similar Samuel Palmer paintings appeared in 1977, Keating was finally arrested and accused of conspiracy to defraud.  Because his health was bad, the case was dropped. He died in 1984, after achieving minor celebrity with a how-to paint TV show. Then Christie’s auctioned over 200 of his works. The amount raised was said to have been considerable – even for his known forgeries.

Many in the art world believe that the 40% forgery stat is a conservative estimate. Forensic artist Jamie Martin ballparks higher, “probably 98 percent are fake.” Further proof that being an art expert today is risky and some authentication boards have shut down. A lot of experts will not provide opinions. Legally, it could be career suicide.

Is it real, or it is mimicry? You decide.

Some questions occurred to me: Where does original art end and the restoration begin? When Michelangelo’s dingy and cracked Sistine Chapel was lovingly restored in the mid 90s, is it still a Michelangelo, or is it now a very famous fake? How much, and how vast, does restoration have to be before the original artist’s work is no longer represented?

Questions to ponder. Continue on to part 2 and part 3.

Top forgery by Elmyr de Hory, Portrait of a Woman in the style of Modigliani

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