The murky world of art forgery has played a role in the story of art for thousands of years. In fact, some famous artists began their careers copying art by others. Most notably, Michelangelo’s first works were forged Roman sculptures, treated them with acid and earth to deliberately make them look like ancient artifacts. These forgeries are now priceless thanks to the man linked to them.
As the study of art history advances and technology such as the X-ray and paint analysis has progressed the science of dating paintings, art forgery has decreased over time. However, stories still occasionally break of duped celebrities (external link) and talented forgers getting caught out by a stray cat hair. (external link)
Always a touchy subject in the world of art, high profile victims of art forgery include some of the biggest galleries in the world and high profile collectors.
It’s hard to list the ‘best’ art forgers, but here are seven artists who led collectors up the garden path. Their fates are mixed, some are celebrated, some faded into obscurity in their prison cell.
Elmyr de Hory
De Hory became one of the most well-known forgers of art after featuring in the Orson Welles directed documentary ‘F For Fake’.
His forgeries grew a market of their own, and are now worth so much that even forgeries of his forgeries have appeared on the market.
Elmyr de Hory claims he has sold over 1,000 forgeries to galleries. His unusual career began when he sold a pen drawing in Paris to a woman who became convinced it was an original Picasso. As De Hory’s scam grew, his outlandish cover story of being a Hungarian aristocrat who was selling his family’s collection grew thin.
De Hory found the real money was in forging the Masters, and his prolific forgery career included successful copies of Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir.
When finally uncovered, De Hory lived in exile for many years and successfully avoided any convictions for art forgery.
The Flower Portrait
This portrait of William Shakespeare may be one of the most recognizable images of an artist in history, but ironically the artist behind the image was almost certainly a forger.
The painting, which has influenced the world view on how Shakespeare looked enormously, was originally dated as a contemporary portrait from 1609, but an X-Ray conducted in 2004 revealed the portrait as an 19th century forgery.
The portrait is a fleshed out copy of the Droeshout engraving which originally appeared on the first edition of the first folio.
Shakespeare is a popular subject for forgeries, with many documents containing his famous signature and even a ‘lost’ play titled Vortigern and Rowena, written by superfan William-Henry Ireland, exposed as forgeries over the centuries.
Han van Meegeren
This Dutch artist was motivated by the critics who denounced his original work as derivative.
Van Meegeren’s frustration turned into a flourish of forgery genius so convincing that some of the most respected art critics of the time praised his forgeries of Vermeer (which he passed off as recently unearthed, previously unseen paintings) as one of the Dutch master’s best works.
Most famous was his 1937 work ‘Supper at Emmaus’, which was hailed as a lost Vermeer masterpiece.
Van Meergeren’s paintings famously duped both the Dutch government, who invested in his works, and leading Nazi general Hermann Goring, in a sale which landed the forger in court for collaborating with the Nazi party. Meergeren declared himself a hero for duping the Nazis into buying fake art. He was found guilty, but died before his prison sentence began.
Stein was an unusual forger in the fact that he was discovered by the very artist he was trying to copy – one Marc Chagall, who spotted a forgery of his own work hanging in a New York gallery.
Stein avoided the authorities by dealing his forgeries under fifteen aliases. He sold forged paintings by modern masters such as Braque, Miro and Klee for suspiciously low prices. Unsurprisingly, many of the dealers he sold to refused to testify against him in court so as not to destroy their reputations as reliable experts.
Stein was arrested in 1967 and spent his time in prison painting at the judge’s request.
Stein painted under his own name after he was released from prison, but his forgeries still circulated for decades. In 1989, a series of fake collages by Stein were featured in an Andy Warhol retrospective at the MOMA in New York.
One of the busiest forgers in history, Keating claims to have forged more than 2,000 paintings by over 100 artists. He trained as a restorer and had a wide knowledge of recreating old paints and pigments.
Keating’s motivation behind his incredibly prolific forgery career was to expose the art world and gallery system as the monetization of creativity – where underpaid and impoverished artists pandered to rich dealers. Keating wished to hoodwink dealers with his forgeries and expose the system.
Keating’s playful and rebellious nature is shown through his habit of placing so called ‘time bombs’ into his paintings – deliberate mistakes such as using specific paints which weren’t available at the time the painting was created, and writing messages underneath his paintings on the canvas which would be revealed in an X-Ray.
Keating’s flair for the dramatic was also revealed in his technique of adding a layer of glycerine underneath his paintings. This meant that the paintings would be deliberately ruined and revealed as forgeries after being cleaned.
Keating was eventually arrested in 1977, but his trial was dropped due to Keating’s health. His forgeries are now incredibly valuable.
Beltracchi’s story is fascinating in how far he and his wife Helene went to keep up his forgery scam.
Wolfgang created the paintings (including Picasso forgeries) while Helene sold them to dealers. His forgeries were incredibly successful, selling for millions and even making the cover of the Christie’s catalogue.
Helene’s role as the charming dealer wore thin after more enquiries came through about the origins of the paintings. Helene and Wolfgang started mocking up vintage photographs with Helene wearing make-up and old clothes to make her look like a distant relative from the past.
Beltracchi was eventually caught and was sent to prison in 2011, at the age of 64.
Now out of prison, his copies with his own signature in the corner (and therefore not forgeries) sell for thousands. Half of his earnings go towards repaying those he sold forgeries to.