We might forgive the casual observer’s relaxed views of art forgers. Perhaps because many of us, on some level, love an outlaw. Tales of art forgers have been popular: Clifford Irving’s Fake! (1969) examined the life of notorious art faker Elmyr de Höry. Orson Welles’ documentary examination of creation and storytelling F for Fake (1973) still cuts to the heart of what it means to make art. Done well, portrayals of art forgery force us to question the aesthetic experience. Yet many fail to acknowledge the underlying wrongdoing. Putting aside their colorful stories and backgrounds, all art counterfeiters are creating an elaborate lie. These individuals defraud our collective cultural heritage by distorting the body of work that artists have created. Prof. John Henry Merryman has called art counterfeiters “cultural vandals”. Those who watch the new documentary, Art and Craft, will first want to mark its subject as a vandal, but by the end may feel differently about him.
The documentary offers a terrific examination of the complicated predicament Landis gifted to at least 46 museums in 20 States. And does so by allowing the museum staff and Landis himself to tell us how he was able to fool so many for so long.
Landis would forge works with skill, such skill that he was able to use surprisingly inexpensive materials. But rather than sell his works, he would pose as a donor and give away his forged work. Most recently he impersonated a Jesuit priest. In the past he would pretend to come from old money. He would arrive at mostly small to mid-size art museums in his deceased mother’s cadillac and give his forged creations away. The documentary film, directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman, with Mark Becker co-directing, gives us a first-hand view of how Landis creates forgeries and shows him giving them away. Viewers will come away with different impressions of the man. Landis battles anxiety, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses. In scenes where he describes his day-to-day well-being to doctors and caregivers, he’s asked how he stays busy, how he engages with the world.
Landis forges with simple materials: instant coffee, cheap frames, plywood, photocopies, some paint and most of all clever technique. His materials are purchased from chain hobby and home improvement stores. The man who finally caught Landis was Mat Leininger, a former Registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art The filmmakers hint at but don’t quite dive in to the tricky question of whether Leinenger’s pursuit of Landis and his forgeries made his employers at the Cincinnati Art Museum uncomfortable, or if there were other reasons for his dismissal. But for much of the film Leininger offer’s Prof. Merryman’s position, basically pointing out Landis’s wrongdoing, and expressing frustration at how difficult it can be to convince some museum staff that they have been fooled. Special praise should go to those curators who were willing to be filmed on camera after having been fooled.
Landis had been committing these forged “philanthropies” for 30 years. It goes without saying that the weakness of any museum is its pursuit of “art and Money” as one curator admits. These museums were fooled by a skillful con man, albeit one suffering from mental illness. The film focuses on Landis, Leininger, and a curated exploration of Landis and his forgeries put together by Aaron Cowan at the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP galleries. As a result the filmmakers don’t really engage with the question of what practical steps museums should be taking to prevent more forgeries from entering their collections, or the even more uncomfortable question of how much art we see in museums may be bogus. When Cowan was putting together the exhibition in 2011, when a few reporters for the Art Newspaper, the New York Times, and Financial Times had uncovered the Landis story, I talked to Aaron on the phone and did a little tentative research on what potential crimes Landis was committing. Here’s a summary of what I found.
Individual state laws are a potential safeguard for this, and three broad types might apply. First is a crime called criminal simulation which makes it a crime for an individual to defraud someone for making an object out to be something much more valuable than it really is. Second is theft by deception which makes it criminal to create false impressions of the authenticity of a work of art. Third, forgery may apply. Though the offence typically applies to documents or financial instruments, it may also apply to works of art if a criminal defendant intends to commit fraud or injury and the criminal provision is broad enough to encompass works of art. All three of these criminal statutes look to intent—a defendant must have had the intent to defraud or to deceive. Intent can be shown if an individual claims an object to be something it is not.Our judicial system takes very seriously the attempts to profit off of this fraud. However if an individual has no apparent tangible economic benefit to his counterfeiting activities, the law has a difficult time intervening. The existence of a criminal provision is but one element needed to bring a prosecution.
Prosecuting attorneys must also have a body of evidence to establish the claim beyond a reasonable doubt. And here I think is where the difficulty with prosecuting Landis really lies. Prosecutors have discretion over which criminal charges to bring. Their priorities are regulated by the political process, and the threats to their constituencies. The crimes the public cares most about receive more of a prosecutor’s attention. The public will often be most concerned about violent crimes, terrorism or maybe even drug crimes. Faked and forged artworks are crimes which some can see as victimless crimes.
There is a chance too that Museums and institutions which are the victims of a counterfeit donation may also bring suit to seek compensation. Yet there are a number of drawbacks. First, the mechanics of a suit may be difficult for some small and medium-sized institutions. There are legal costs and prospects of even a successful suit will rely on the ability of a defendant to pay any judgment. Second, lawsuits draw attention. The scrutiny which comes along with a suit may draw unwanted notice to an institution which has been fooled by an art counterfeiter. Finally, judgments will likely be small. How much damage occurs when a museum accepts a counterfeit donation is a difficult question. If a museum has incurred costs in conserving or evaluating the donation, those costs can be recovered.
Another interesting aspect of the documentary to note is the short interview of Bob Wittman. Wittman claims to have known of Landis and his forged “philanthropies” since about 2005-2006. As a viewer I was left wondering what steps were taken to alert museusm to his forgeries. What practical safeguards have been erected to prevent someone else from doing the same thing in the future? Given the attention Landis has received, his forged giftings would seem to be finished. But the film ends with Landis turning his considerable talents in a different direction. It is the attention which drives him to forge artworks. And given the incredible access he gave to the filmmakers and Cowan, perhaps the attention he receives will prevent him from further diluting museum collections. Because there are too few safeguards to prevent him if he were to take up his old ways again.
The film is great, and opened in select theaters which show these kind of films last weekend. If you’ve seen it give a comment below and let us know what you thought.