Wild Story of A Forger who Donates his Forgeries

 Randy Kennedy has a super article (following an earlier report in the Art Newspaper) discussing a man named Mark Landis who forges works of art and donates the forgeries to art museums all over America. He may have been doing this for as many as twenty years.

His real name is Mark A. Landis, and he is a lifelong painter and former gallery owner. But when he paid a visit to the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette, La., last September, he seemed more like a character sprung from a Southern Gothic novel.

He arrived in a big red Cadillac and introduced himself as Father Arthur Scott. Mark Tullos Jr., the museum’s director, remembers that he was dressed “in black slacks, a black jacket, a black shirt with the clerical collar and he was wearing a Jesuit pin on his lapel.” Partly because he was a man of the cloth and partly because he was bearing a generous gift — a small painting by the American Impressionist Charles Courtney Curran, which he said he wanted to donate in memory of his mother, a Lafayette native — it was difficult not to take him at his word, Mr. Tullos said.

That is a pretty remarkable thing to do, even in the art trade. The lesson is clear though, we can certainly blame the forger/donor, but provenance and the history of an object must be checked, even when an object is donated. 

  1. Randy Kennedy, Elusive Forger, Giving but Never Stealing, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2011).
  2. Helen Stoilas, “Jesuit priest” donates fraudulent works, The Art Newspaper (Nov. 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Forgery Ring Discovered in Italy

The BBC and ANSA are reporting that a forged art ring has been discovered by authorities after an 18 month investigation.  The investigation was conducted by monitoring payment transfers and consulting art historians.  Works recovered include forgeries of works by Matisse and Magritte.  There are more than 500 counterfeit works, which may have cost buyers close to 9 million euros. 

  1. Italy seizes counterfeit artwork, BBC, August 25, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11088475 (last visited Aug 25, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

"Maybe a Man’s Name Doesn’t Matter That Much"

 So says Orson Welles in this clip from F for Fake.  I couldn’t help but think of Welles and his film when reading Martin Gayford’s piece on the National Gallery in London’s new exhibition “Close Examination:  Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries”. 

Gaysford asks “whether works of art are really by the people or cultures that are supposed to have created them?”  The Exhibit at the National Gallery will examine these questions, with specific objects.  One object which the exhibit draws on is “The Faun” a fake Gauguin sculpture created by Shaun Greenhalgh which fooled the Art Institute in Chicago (and many others) for a number of years.   Gaysford notes that after Greenhalgh’s deception was discovered, we all thought very differently about the object, when in fact “this changed nothing.  The faun remains the same pointy-eared, hook-nosed fellow that he always was.”  Yet Gaysford notes:

The point of this story is not that art experts are foolish. In fact, the Faun is a very clever forgery. Its brilliance in part is that there actually was a Gauguin sculpture of a faun – it’s listed in an old inventory and may still exist in a cupboard somewhere. The lesson is that now we know it’s not a Gauguin, it ceases to be part of a larger whole: Gauguin’s art. At that point, even if it is still quite an attractive statuette, it loses an enormous amount of meaning. Discovering a work is a fake is like discovering a friend has been lying to you for years.

It is difficult to separate the object from the deception.  Even if the faun was a terrific work of aesthetic beauty, the fraud which spawned the forgery taints that beauty in our mind—we might even resent the object the better the “fake” really is.  That is not to say it cannot be a beautiful object, but it loses something by trying to trick us.

File:Escher's Relativity.jpg
Relativity, M.C. Escher, 1953

Artists play tricks all the time.  The works of M.C. Escher may be the most obvious examle of this.  But his deception is mathematical, and there for you to see—in a sense the job of the viewer is to try to figure out how he has done it.  Orson Welles was right to ask what’s in a man’s name, and right to point out that it may not matter that much.  But what does matter for something like the Faun and other forgeries is the lie told to the audience or the buyer.  Art forgers may be the creator of the work, but also those who attempt to pass off works they know or should know are forged on an unsuspecting public.

The bigger question is how many forgeries are exhibited in museums alongside the authentic works.  When buyers and sellers and museums are not careful about the history of an object (including antiquities) we might think of them as a kind of forger as well.  They may be unwitting, and fooled by a clever forger as the Art Institute of Chicago was, but when they value the object above everything, they risk becoming complicit in the forgery. 

  1. Martin Gayford, Art forgeries: does it matter if you can’t spot an original?, Telegraph.co.uk, June 17, 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/7824999/Art-forgeries-does-it-matter-if-you-cant-spot-an-original.html (last visited Jun 18, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Vernon Rapley Leaves the Metropolitan Police for the V&A

According to a report by the Art Newspaper, the V&A museum has hired Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley away from Scotland Yard’s art and antiques.  The V&A is a massive museum, which has been difficult to safely secure in the past.  Here’s to hoping he can continue to improve the V&A’s security.  From the Art Newspaper:

He joins the museum on 21 June, to take charge of security and visitor services. Before turning to art, Rapley investigated murder, paedophilia and child abuse at the Metropolitan Police. He really got to know the V&A in 2004, when there was a spate of thefts at major London museums. The V&A was hit three times, and 38 rooms had to be shut, many for years, while security was upgraded. Supported by the V&A, the Yard set up the London Museum Security Group. Rapley even took a turn as guest curator earlier this year, when he organised a Scotland Yard-curated display at the museum on fakes and forgeries, which spotlighted the case of the Greenhalgh family from Bolton, who created objects ranging from Egyptian antiquities to modern paintings.

  1. V&A gets its own personal detective | The Art Newspaper, (2010), http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/V&A-gets-its-own-personal-detective/21044 (last visited Jun 9, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Barford on the Sale of Egyptian Antiquities

Archaeologist Paul Barford has an interesting post on the sale of antiquities in Egypt.  He’s had a number of interesting posts on his time on an excavation there, but I was really interested in his post Monday.  He talks about his quest for some fake antiquities, and was offered some shabtis.  These small funerary figurines were placed in graves, perhaps as servants meant to serve the deceased in the afterlife.  Pictured here are shabtis on display in the Louvre.  Barford states the “current modes of no-questions asked collecting are directly contributing to the creation of the market which is the motor behind the looting of archaeological sites for saleable objects.”  I think I agree with him that buyers are fueling the looting of sites.  But there are other contributing causes:  the paucity of resources in these areas for law enforcement; the desire by visitors and tourists to buy these objects; and the lack of site security when archaeologists leave.  The answer is responsible scrutiny of these transactions, but also the importance of outreach and education of these buyers and the local communities about the value of responsible stewardship of these sites and objects.       

Barford writes:

Last night in a Luxor sidestreet on my quest for the best or the most bizarre fake artefacts, in a grubby shop I’d overlooked before, I was offered several shabtis and shabti fragments which I am pretty sure were not fakes. All the dealer offered as provenance was “here and there”. After I had correctly identified the fakes he’d mixed in to test whether his customer knew his onions, he showed me a lot more. I told him that in his country there was a new law under discussion which would make merely having them in his shop punishable by up to twenty five years. I was not terribly surprised that he would not show me the “authentic scarabs” after that. Those suppliers “here and there” who sold them to him knew that these items were saleable to visiting foreigners.

The day before, I was walking across the palace site at Malkata, showing it to some colleagues, and had just replaced the cardboard “protecting” the wall paintings when a guy in a dark robe came running up. “Closed, closed, zis site he closed” he panted. He was presumably the “gafir” who was guarding this site for the SCA. Once he realised he could not make cash out of showing us the wall paintings which I’d just shown people, he then pulled out of his pocket a blue-painted sherd, the “Armarna ware” which I have seen on the Internet being sold at 300 dollars a piece and asked whether I would like to “see” it. It looked remarkably like the one I’d found there a few weeks earlier and put under a nearby bush to protect it from the sun and weather. I told him where he could put it. Interestingly this was after I had pulled out the photo-identity document issued by the SCA authorising me as an archaeologist to visit sites like this.

 . . .

What is interesing about this is Malkata is littered with pottery, tonnes of it. Most of it from the Eighteenth dynasty, including some nice red wares (lovely colours), slipped ware, fine bowls, burnished ware. Yet neither of the would-be vandors had picked any of this up, they knew their market, the blue-painted pottery is coveted by western collectors and that is what they were stealing from the site to make a bit of cash. . . . 

I’ve had similar experiences at ancient sites as I’m sure many of you have.  Pictured here is a man selling small stone ‘zapotec’ figurines at Monte Alban in Oaxaca Mexico this summer.  I don’t have the expertise required to tell if these are fakes or not.  I’ve always assumed, as Barford did, that these locals are selling fakes.  

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

César Baldaccini and the Definition of Art

One of the ways criminal defendants can often try to evade “art crime” offenses is by challenging the definitions of art.  The most recent example is the Piedoie brothers.  The two are accused of pawning off 130 of their own creations as genuine works by César Baldaccini Baldaccini.  Baldaccini died in 1998, and was known for his sculptures which were made by compressing consumer goods like cars or refrigerators into metallic blocks, like this one.

During a trial this week, the brothers will attempt to argue that made these César works as a kind of imitation, but not fakes.  In a report by a French magistrate, the “lack of seriousness” of several auction houses was blamed, and the French prosecutor has expressed dismay that the French art market has been “flooded” with these kinds of fakes since the artist’s death in 1998. 

The investigation into these forgeries began in 2001 by mistake:

Police in the south of France searching for stolen art works, including a Chagall and a Magritte, bugged several suspects in a world of high-living, cocaine-taking art lovers and dealers. They stumbled on evidence that Eric Piedoie was flooding the Côte d’Azur with fake Césars.

The appearance of so many unknown works enflamed feelings within César’s family and entourage. The artist’s wife Rosine Baldaccini and daughter Anna Puységur Baldaccini were disputing his inheritance with his mistress Stéphanie Busuttil. Each side accused the other of selling off works before the dispute was settled in court.
Mme Busuttil was allegedly approached by the Piedoie brothers to sign certificates of authentification for some of their works. She says she did so in good faith: a claim accepted by the prosecution.
In other words, both César’s own mistress and the art critic who catalogued his work could not tell authentic “compression” sculptures from fake ones knocked off in a garage. Awkward questions therefore arise. Were César’s “compression sculptures” really art? Are the Piedoie brothers con-artists or true, accidental artists themselves?

 

  1. On trial: the question of what is modern art, The Independent, December 1, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Recovered Picasso a Fake?

The work of art recovered by Iraqi forces last week may be a fake.  This label on the back of the work has some spelling mistakes, and indicates the Louvre sold the work to the Kuwait Museum.  However the Louvre has said it has never had a Picasso. 

From the AP:

The London-based Art Loss Registry said it has no record of any paintings missing from the Kuwait National Museum, and no record of this particular painting as missing at all.  The Picasso Museum in Paris and France’s national museum were searching their archives for signs of the painting, which Iraqi forces seized Tuesday during a raid on a house near Hillah, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Baghdad.  A local judge in Hillah, Aqeel al-Janabi, said Thursday the painting will be sent to Baghdad after an investigation but refused to provide details.  In a video released by the Hillah police, the man detained for trying to sell it, 33-year-old Maitham al-Issawi, said it belonged to his father, who gave it to him before his death. His father, al-Issawi, was an army officer who took part in the invasion of Kuwait, which led to the 1991 Gulf War.  In the video, officers hold up the canvas, which has fold marks on the front. Police have said the painting bears Picasso’s signature but would not comment further Thursday.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com