When crime does pay

Part 2 of a three-part series on art forgers. Read part 1 here.

While many art forgers have served time, and/or met with unfortunate ends, other forgers have left a life of crime behind them and turned their many talents, shall we say, into legal, profitable businesses.

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1 > John Myatt: British artist + convicted forger supplementing his income

John Myatt’s talent for visual mimicry took him from a life of crime to a respected artist. In 1986 to supplement his teaching job and raising two kids as a single father, Myatt got caught up in a web of deceit and went on to paint 200 fakes mimicking a long line of masters including Juan Gris, Jean Dubuffet, Marc Chagall, Le Corbusier and Alberto Giacometti.

Myatt would go to a museum and examine a painting – taking it apart technically. For the forgery, he explains, “I would create a new painting, not copy the one I had looked at, but using the same methods, the same techniques, based very much on the way my target artist did it.”

But Scotland Yard caught up with Myatt in 1995. After serving a reduced sentence, Myatt chose to never paint again. By a strange twist of fate, the arresting officer commissioned him to paint a family portrait. Along with painting legitimate fakes, Myatt developed his own artistic style, and within six months, was making a good living from his art.

By 2005, his first exhibition of originals debuted in London and was a complete sell out.


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2 > Mark Landis: American artist + forger providing philanthropic relief

Mark Landis has been called one of the most prolific art forgers in US history. Since copying art catalogs as a child living in Europe, Landis’ impressive and diverse body of “interpretative” work spans thirty years covering Picasso and even Walt Disney.

Unlike other forgers, Landis isn’t in it for money. He has given away hundreds of works to US institutions. Given away, being the key. Since no sale was executed – no crime was committed.

But after duping Matthew Leininger, former registrar of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Landis’s philanthropic con was exposed. With much encouragement to cease and desist, the University of Cincinnati soon exhibited a show of Landis’ works called Faux Real in 2012.

The new documentary, Art and Craft, tells Mark Landis’ story. Listen to the conversation between Kurt Anderson of Studio 360, Landis and documentarian Sam Cullman.


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3 > Wolfgang Beltracchi: German artist + convicted forger seeking luxury

Currently serving a six-year sentence in an open prison, Wolfgang Beltracchi’s claims to forgery fame are hundreds of paintings by more than 50 artists including Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Raoul Dufy and Kees van Dongen. For nearly 40 years, his paintings have made their way onto the international scene: In museums, in galleries, and in private collections.

The son of an art restorer, he was expelled from school at 17. Beltracchi became somewhat of a drifter, but found his way into art school. He married Helene in 1993. He, along with his co-conspirator wife and sister-in-law, would go on to con the art world for decades and make millions.

But all good things must end. And it was the wrong tube of white paint that brought down the house of Beltracchi. In 2010, a top forensic art analyst determined that the titanium white paint used in a $7 million Max Ernst piece wouldn’t have been available when Ernst painted it. Galleries and auction houses that vouched for Beltracchi’s forgeries have been sued by the collectors who bought them.

As Beltracchi finishes up his sentence, he is launching a new career, publishing books and painting again, but this time around, signing his works “Beltracchi.”


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4 > Ken Perenyi: American artist + forger doing good

Ken Perenyi is a master forger whose meticulous oils include a wide variety of artists and styles ranging from Martin Johnson Heade and Jed Butterworth to Picasso and Modigliani. For nearly three decades Perenyi enjoyed the fruits of his con. But in 1998, the FBI caught on and Perenyi’s works moved into the crosshairs.

In the midst of Perenyi dodging the FBI, he saw a story on 60 Minutes detailing the trokosi system of some West African countries where young girls serve as slaves to high priests. With his forgery earnings, he knew he could help at least one girl. As the adoption process proceeded, Perenyi’s FBI profile became more prominent and he decided that it was time to change his business model. He was never charged as a forger.

Now openly selling fakes to dealers and high-end clients, Perenyi enjoys a good, but less global lifestyle. A Trinity Gallery in Florida represents him, and his clients sign a purchase agreement with full knowledge that they are buying fakes. His memoir, “Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger” was published in 2012, safely, since the statute of limitations on his crimes has expired.


Intent to Deceive

This ground-breaking exhibition organized by International Arts & Artists spotlights some of the world’s most notorious con artists of the 20th century. With their dubious legacies, the exhibit examines how their talents, charm, and audacity beguiled and assaulted the art world from the last century through today.

The touring exhibit may be coming to a museum near you. Check the schedule here.

Read part 1 here or jump to part 3 here.

2 Responses to “When crime does pay”

  1. Lucia D Says:

    You write about the oddest topics, but I like reading about them.

    Is that the real Vermeer girl or the fake?


  2. Janet Says:

    Hi LD:

    Thanks for the comment and question. That’s the fake Vermeer. All of the artwork shown is forged.


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