Looking at Piranesi’s foray into forging of Roman antiques, I delved into the life and work of forgers and discovered a truly fascinating world. It’s worth the read, these people were incredible – the last two I’ve written about are movie material hands down.
Art forgery dates back over a thousand years, when Roman sculptors, in order to indulge the growing taste in Roman art, would copy or replicate Greek statues and sell them as originals.
In the Renaissance, many artists took on apprentices who would learn the trade by imitating the style of the master of the studio. In turn, the artist would sell the apprentices’ works as their own.
With the rise of the middle class, an art market was created to meet the demands of the new consumer. Starting with the 1300s, when Roman statues were unearthed, the taste for antiquities grew and so did the number of fakes on the market. In the early history of art forgery, most fakes were of ancient sculptures, but, when the value of a work of art became linked to its author, the trend soon spread to more modern artists. In a way, what we truly know as forgeries began in the 16th century, when artists started the habit of signing their work. A forgery is not only an imitation of style but an appropriation of an identity.
Durer marked one of his prints with the inscription “Be cursed, plunderers and imitators of the work and talent of others”, such was his annoyance for the multitude of forgeries of his work on the market. Other artists recognized the paradox of the forgery and embraced it, to a certain extent. Picasso famously declared that he would sign any fake that he would judge good enough to be his original, while Jean Corot, in addition to his around 700 original works, flooded the market with thousands of copies he personally signed.
But the central figure in the forgery process is not the imitated but the imitator. Some of the most famous (and then perhaps not some of the best, since what is the greatest accomplishment of a forger if not to go undetected) had immensely interesting lives and personas.
A little known anecdote about Michelangelo’s beginnings is his attempt to sell a fake Roman Sleeping Eros statue, which would have sold for a much higher price than if he had accepted it as his own. The young Michelangelo damaged his finished sculpture and buried it in his dealer’s yard where he “found” it and later sold it.
John Myatt and Stephen Fry with the Fry as Pope Velasquez
John Myatt (b.1945), together with his dealer, faked a paper trail for his forgeries of Chagall and Giacometti, which they inserted in real archives where they could later be “discovered” in order to prove the authenticity of the works. Myatt admits to have released around 200 fakes and their documents onto the market, but only 60 have been found, which leave 140 works undetected. Myatt was recently released from prison and is working with a team of investigators to track down other forgeries (although not his own). He is currently talking to George Clooney about an upcoming biopic.
Tom Keating (1917 – 1984) was a prolific forger who produced almost 2000 fakes, which, when caught, he refused to name. Keating stated that he produced the forgeries as a rebellion against the art trade and left time bombs and clues within the fakes themselves. For instance he would paint text in white led paint under the painting, text that he knew would be revealed under x-rays. He used modern materials and techniques and painted in a manner very much his own – Titian-inspired Venetian approach to applying oil paints, fine tuned along Dutch lines. Another trap he hid in his paintings was applying a layer of glycerin under the oil paint. When the painted surface would need to be cleaned, the entire layer of oil would dissolve, ruining the work which would then be revealed as a fake. He never listed his forgeries when apprehended in 1977. After serving his prison sentence, he starred on a channel 4 tv series in which he taught viewers how to pain like the old masters. His health deteriorated quickly due to years of inhaling the fumes of the trade – ammonia, turpentine and methyl alcohol. His work has become increasingly valuable, now selling for 10 000 – 20 000 pounds.
Shaun Greenhalgh (b. 1961) is an incredibly diverse forger – he has faked works ranging from 20th century British sculpture to an Egyptian statue purportedly from 1350 B.C., fooling Christie’s, Sotheby’s and The British Museum, as well as other illustrious victims. The Greenhalghs were caught when a British Museum expert noted that Assyrian sculptural relief tablets, supposedly created in Mesopotamia in 700 B.C., contained misspellings in cuneiform. He was convicted in 2008, alongside his octogenarian parents, pictured above.
Tony Tetro (b. 1950) is a very prolific forger whose perfect reproductions earned him the title “genius” in the press. Tetro became successful and wealthy, owning a tri-level condominium, a Rolls Royce Silver Spirit, two Ferraris and a Lamborghini Countach.He gambled in Monte Carlo and frequently traveled to Paris and Rome. With no visible source of income, local police and residents assumed he was a drug dealer and his car was frequently searched. After his arrest, which bankrupted him, part of his sentence included 200 hours of community service in which he was ordered to paint a mural on a public building, one of his only original works.
Yves Chaudron was a French master art forger who is alleged to have copied images of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as part of Eduardo de Valfierno’s famous 1911 Mona Lisa painting theft. After the painting was stolen, the plan was that the original would remain hidden and six copies by Chaudron would be sold secretly to collectors as the original. Chaudron was never charged since the details were only discovered after his death.
Elmyr de Hory (1905 – 1976?) not only faked numerous paintings, but attempted to fake the very reality of his life. He reached fame by being the main figure in Orson Wells’s documentary, F for Fake, and the book Fake by Cliffor Irving. Born in Hungary at a time of great social upheaval, he lies about both his Jewish origins and his sexual preferences in order to avoid jail. He studies in Paris under Fernand Leger and becomes accustomed to a very extravagant lifestyle. He returns to Hungary and becomes involved with a British spy, which lands him in a Transylvanian prison, from which he escapes by painting the warden’s portrait. Shortly, he is imprisoned again, this time in a German concentration camp but escapes from the prison hospital and bribes his way into France. It is in France that he start making forgeries when he is unable to sell his own work. He mainly copied Picasso and Matisse.
He moves to Miami in 1950 and, after selling several forgeries to a Chicago art dealer, is charged with fraud. He quickly flees to Mexico where he is again arrested(!) but this time for suspected murder of his British lover. He pays his legal fees with a forgery and flees back to the US where due to being known as a forger by dealers, was forced to sell lithographs door-to-door. He suffers from depression and attempts suicide by sleeping pills.
He soon becomes involved with a young man named Fernand Legros who becomes his lover and his dealer. Legros sells de Hory’s works and keeps most of the profits, lying to Elmyr. Legros later meets Real Lessard, with whom he cheats on de Hory, both personally and professionally. Legros convinces de Hory to move to Ibiza, sending him a monthly allowance of 400 dollars, while he and Lessard remained in the States and sold forgeries. The paintings’ quality begins to suffer as de Hory sinks deeper into depression and dealers report Legros and Lessard to the authorities. The two are caught and charged with fraud, but de Hory evades the accusations by claiming that he never signed the fakes, but that Legros did. Without proof of faking a signature, he cannot be tried for forgery but is instead imprisoned for two months for homosexuality.
After his release, he achieves somewhat of a celebrity status and is interviewed by Clifford Irving who writes his biography, “Fake!”. Irving himself becomes a literary forger by writing a fake auto-biography of Howard Hughes. In 1976, his live-in boyfriend and bodyguard finds him dying from a self-administered sleeping pill overdose. De Hory soon dies but there are many who claim, including Irving, that he had ultimately faked his own death and in order to avert the authorities yet again.
Elmyr de Hory’s real name is suspected to be Elemér Albert Hoffmann.
Han van Meegeren painting a fake during his trial in order to prove his prowess
Han Van Meegeren (1889 – 1947) is probably the most well know forger of the 20th century. He studies architecture in Delft and is highly appreciated as a student but drops out since he doesn’t want to become an architect. While still in school he designs and builds a boathouse for the Rowing Club DDS. He then studies art in the Hague and is awarded a gold medal for the best project in five years. After graduating, he takes on a teaching position. To support his family, he also sells Christmas cards and portraits.
He becomes relatively well known for his signed work, mainly portraits of American millionaires rendered in Dutch Golden age style, and drawing of deer. His very old-school style is sneered at by Dutch contemporaries as “a gifted technician who has made a sort of composite facsimile of the Renaissance school; he has every virtue except originality.” In order to prove his critics wrong, he sets out to create a work of art so magnificent that it would rival the works of master painters. He moves to the south of France where, for six years, he dedicates his life to developing the perfect forgery. He exercise by copying the styles of Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer, settling on Vermeer as “author” of his masterpiece. He studies his life, work and technique. He mixes his own pigments from raw materials and paints on genuine 17th century canvases with badger hair brushes that he makes himself. He glazes his paintings with Bakelite and bakes them in order to harden and crack their surface so that they appear 300 years old. He then ages them by filling the cracks with India ink. He finishes several trial Vermeers, which he does not sell. The firs forgery he sells is Supper at Emmaus, which is praised very highly after being declared a lost Vermeer. With the proceedings, he buys a 12-bedroom villa in Niece which he fills with real Old Masters. His forgeries sell for around 25-30 million dollars (in today’s prices) and he leads a very lavish lifestyle.
In 1942, during the German occupation, his dealer sells a forgery to Alois Miedl, a Nazi banker. The painting was not one of van Meegeren’s best since his health had been declining (he was addicted to morphine) but since all Vermeers were in salt mines to be safeguarded during war, a comparison could not be made and Miedl’s purchase is deemed genuine. Miedl sells the painting to Reichsmarchall Herman Göring who stores it in a salt mine. When allied forces storm the mine, the “Vermeer” is unearthed. The painting is traced back to Meegeren who is arrested not for forgery but, more gravely, for treason for consorting the enemy and selling the cultural heritage of the Nederlands. After three days in prison and facing a death sentence Meegeren tells the authorities that the painting is not a real Vermeer but a forgery. The forgery is so good that he must prove this statement by painting another fake during trial, in front of the jury. During a lenghtly process, a large team of experts analyzed the painting and declared it a fake. Ultimately, he is only charged with fraud (a one year sentence) and his posessions are sold (although he had divorced his wife Jo and moved all money and property to her name just before trial in order to prevent loosing his estate). He dies on the day of his sentencing of a heart attack.
He becomes famous and the forger becomes forged himself, the market being full of fake Meegern fakes. His most famous forger is his own son.
With such prolific forging careers, it is no wonder that art historian Thomas Hoving estimates that various types of forged art comprise up to 40% of the art market. Contemporary artists, in order to prevent forgery, now start signing their works using magnetic inks, like those used on banknotes, making artworks virtually impossible to fake. I find this paradoxical since the the very nature of erasure that contemporary art has been through makes forgery both very easy but also not challenging to forgers, who see what they do not merely as imitation but as an artistic expression in its own right.
F for Fake by Orson Wells 1973
Fake! by Clifford Irving, 1969
The Art Forger’s Handbook, by Eric Hebborn
Museum of Art fakes, Vienna