Features: MutualArt

Fakes, Forgeries, and Phonies, Oh My!

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Left: <a class=Alberto Giacometti, Le chien, 1951; Right: Seized counterfeit goods in 2010" src="" />
Left: Alberto Giacometti, Le chien, 1951; right: seized counterfeit goods in 2010

Recently we brought you tales of thievery run amuk in the world of art, but unfortunately art world deceit is not limited to the sticky fingers of a few criminals. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in the business of art dealing, it’s the downright theft of an artist’s craft, skill and original idea. We’re talking about Forgery, a crime that has been taking place for centuries, ever since art became a commodity, and it turns ordinary people and amateur artists into greedy con men.

Forgery is not a simple crime to master, to be sure: nowadays, to protect themselves from trickery, art collectors should insist to see provenance information and even certificates of authenticity. Yet even these measures cannot deter the most audacious of criminals, who often fabricate some elaborate history about the work (usually involving a hidden art trove magically discovered) and falsify documents to support their claims.

Luckily, even as forgers become more and more clever (including reading some how-to books on the subject), technology is here to save the day. Scientific methods, from chemical analysis to X rays and high-power magnification, can be used to quite literally uncover the truth. The trick is, the owner must first use better judgement about the works’ presumed authenticity, and be bold enough to root out the truth. It is said that "Corot painted 2,000 pictures, 10,000 of which are in the United States." Do you own a Corot?

So what’s the juciest part about forgery cases? The trial of course, when the defendant usually pleads guilty and shares his/her sordid tale and motives (which are often complicated, as money isn’t the only thing forgers crave). Here we bring you a few of our favorite forgery cases that made headlines this year. From duped celebrities to fake Counts; using the Nazis as an excuse and an art peddling Priest - the field of art forgery is certainly a colorful one!

What do a football star, racing aficionado and pop artist have in common?

They all managed to get swept into the latest art forgery breaking news case in Italy! Flavio Briatore, former boss of the Benetton and Renault racing teams, purchased about 30 artworks by Italian pop artist Mimmo Rotella inCon un sorriso, 1962 by Mimmo Rotella 2008 from JZ Art Trading, including Wise, 1962, worth about 30,000 euros. The now-closed JZ gallery in Milan was owned by French football player Jonathan Zebina. Last week, Turin’s city prosecutor seized “Wise” as part of an investigation into a ring of forgers, which touches base at the JZ gallery and highlights bigger problems plaguing the market for Italian post-war art. (Right: Con un sorriso, 1962, by Mimmo Rotella)

Both sporty collectors thus far appear to be innocent, pawns at the mercy of alleged conspirators/forgers Fabrizio Quiriti, artistic director of the gallery, and Michel­angelo Lanza, an art and carpets dealer sentenced in 2005 for selling a forged De Chirico painting. Zebina claims, “Wise was dispatched to Briatore without my knowledge, together with a selection of other pieces from my gallery inventory by Fabrizio Quiriti,” and perhaps swapped out real works for fakes. The famous footballer has taken out criminal lawsuits against Quiriti for his alleged negligent management of the gallery. Zebina also says he was the one who initiated the investigation, to combat counterfeit Rotella works. Oddly, on the other side, Briatore stresses “that I have full confidence in Quiriti’s good faith and in his professionalism.”

Roll celebrity star power, a WWII art trove worth millions, and lively courtroom theatrics together...

... and you’ve got yourself the art scam spectacle of the year! In September the trial began of four people indicted in one of - if not the largest - art forgery ring in post-War Germany. This colorful crew from Cologne passed off 44 fake works as the secret stash of a wealthy German businessman who died in 1992, hidden from the Nazis and only recently uncovered. Painted by Wolfgang Beltracchi, the works mimicked the likes of 20th century greats Max Ernst, Kees van Dongen, Fernand Léger and Heinrich Campendonk. Auction houses, museums, and even actor Steve Martin were all duped out of a total $22 million in the operation initiated in 2001.

Left: Rotes Bild mit Pferden; Middle: counterfeit Landscape; Right: Die drune Kuh, 1913 by <a class=Heinrich Campendonk " src="" />

The forgeries were realized in 2008, when the buyer of a €2.9 million Campendonk from Lempertz auction house and had the piece scientifically tested; a color was discovered in the painting which was not yet invented during the artist’s time. Steve Martin also became tangled in the scandal because of a fake Campendonk, a bright landscape that he purchased from a Paris gallery in 2004 for €700,000 ($850,000). Martin sold the painting at Christie’s in 2006 before the scandal was revealed. In the end, Beltracchi was all smiles after accepting a plea bargain of six years; relishing his 5 minutes of fame, and using the chance to proudly proclaim his artistic endeavors, which he claimed were sometimes “too good.” Best of all was his explanation that the forgeries were his own way of sticking it to the ‘man’ (i.e. greedy art dealers who don’t check works before selling them for enormous profits). The media latched onto his cheerfulness and talent, bestowing him sympathy, the nickname ‘rogue” and calling for an exhibition of his fakes, including “the best Campendonk that ever was.” According to Die Spiegel magazine, “he is already well-liked by prison officers, whose portraits he paints.” Maybe prison will be this “artist’s” big break after all! Can you spot the real Campendonk above? (Left: Rotes Bild mit Pferden "by" Campendonk, sold at Lempertz in 2008; Middle: Landschaft mit Pferden purchased by Steve Martin; Right: Die drune Kuh, 1913 by Heinrich Campendonk)

Those who can’t do, teach...

...and then, apparently, become a conman. Thus is the case of 40 year old Rizvan Rahman, a former art teacher in Leicester, UK. He was jailed in October for 18 months after admitting to selling £180,000 worth of fake paintings to galleries across England. The works purportedly were created by British artists such as LS Lowry and Mary FThe Art Forger's Handbookedden, while additional works seized in 2009 from his studio including pieces “by” such illustrious figure as Picasso, Francis Bacon, and Lucien Freud. Also of note, police found books such as “The Art Forger’s Handbook” and “Confessions of a Master Forger” during the raid.

Jason Helmn, of Leicestershire Police, said: "Mr. Rahman's reputation was pretty renowned in art world. After the first couple of galleries I contacted, it quickly became quite obvious that Mr Rahman was well-known and his reputation for selling fake paintings went before him.” he had set up shop under the name Haslam and Purdey, and remarkably, despite his tarnished reputation, he managed to keep the operation afloat for several years. Rahman covered up his dishonesty with “honesty” - if clients discovered works were not authentic, Rahman shared their shock and dismay and refunded their money. The infamous art dealer did not admit to creating the actual forgeries himself, though police suspect he did. Among his stock was 13 paintings “by” Mary Fedden; when the 96-year-old artist saw one of the works, "She was less than impressed by the forger's work, saying it was a very bad painting," the prosecutor said. Like we said, those can’t do....

The case of Diego's Revenge and the 1,000 Giacomettis

Fake art seems to be a popular affair in Germany this year, with another headline-grabbing prison sentencing taking place in Stuttgart. This year also saw the trial of a self-proclaimed Count (no more ‘real’ than the Count on Sesame Street) and his forgery ring, nabbed in 2009 in an under-cover sting operation after years of selling fake Alberto Giacometti sculptures. Giacometti is a classy choice, as a life-size bronze sculpture by the artist sold for a recordbreaking $104 million at Sotheby's last year. “Count” Senke fabricated an elaborate tale of Diego’s (Alberto’s brother) Revenge, which accounted for the secretly acquired new stash of sculptures. Dealers and auction houses across Europe fell victim to the Count’s charming story and incredible sculpture stash, which raised over €8 million for 200 sculptures sold over seven years. At his peak, Senke even tried to broker a deal in New York of 300 bronze sculptures for €50 million; the deal fell through when he couldn’t produce certificated of authenticity from the Giacometti Foundation in Paris. Véronique Wiesinger, director of the Foundation, says that museums have acquired fakes, too, and believes there are still “many other people in this ring.” Wiesinger says the work is often of low quality: "In some, the counterfeiters were obviously working from photographs so only had one view; they simply guessed what the backs were like." Collection of fake Giacometti sculptures recovered in Mainz(See example at top of article)

In total, the police seized another 1,100 fakes at a warehouse owned by his partner in crime, art dealer Herbert Schulte. Schulte, his wife and two other dealers were prosecuted; Schulte was sentenced to seven years and four months, and the other accomplices were sentenced to only two years on probation after pleading guilty to fraud and forgery. Interestingly, Senke denies everything and insists on the originality of the the artwork. He was convicted on June 30th for 38 of the 50 crimes including theinfringement of the copyright of Alberto Giacometti and sentenced to nine years in prison. (Right: a collection of fake Giacometti sculptures recovered at the warehouse in Mainz)

Off the beaten path - the forger who donates his works

In January, the Financial Times ran an exposé of a forger whose odd story begs the question - Is there more to forgery than the scent of money? Such is the predicament in the case of Mark Augustus Landis, who for theMark Landis past thirty years has been generously donating works of art to US museums - mimicked works that is, by quasi-big name artists (Charles Courtney Curran, Alfred Jacob Miller, Milton Avery, Everett Shinn, and even Walt Disney). Landis’ gracious alter-ego, Jesuit priest Father Arthur Scott, donates his fake-art as acts of goodwill. The forgeries typically pass initial inspection (after all, who would suspect a priest of lying... about art, of all things) while some were uncovered during in-depth inspection. One duped museum director explains Landis’ tactic, “He probably downloaded a digital image of the painting, glued it to this board, sanded it down and distressed it, and painted over the top.”

Still, after visiting at least 40 museums (and probably many more), it is unknown how many of Landis’ creations today hang proudly on gallery walls. Yet by Landis’ own account, he has carried out his scheme to have works donated in his parent’s names, because “I’d like to have had a museum named after dad or mother but I’m not a billionaire” - and no one has figured out any other real motives. Landis suffered a psychological breakdown as a young man, and at that time was diagnosed as schizophrenic. All in all, he has never seemed to pose any real harm. So what do you do with a forger who doesn’t accept a penny in return for his deceitful dealings? “The criminal statute [of fraud] says there must be a loss and that’s the problem. There hasn’t been a loss to any victim,” says investigator Robert Wittman, formerly of the FBI’s Art Crime Team. Whether nuisance or clever conman, Father Scott wins the award for most unique art forger, who certainly breaks the typical mold.

Art 101: Can the student out-master the master?

In June 2010, an oil painting of a nude young woman by Chinese artist Xu Beihong sold for an impressive $11 million in Beijing. This September, a number of 1980’s graduates from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts released a scandalous letter - claiming Xu is not the true author of The Body of Miss Jiang Biwei! They propose that one former Academy student created the work as a school exercise, roughly three decades after the famous painter’s death in 1953. The former students posted their own similar paintings online, depicting what appears to be the exact same nude figure (from each student’s own particular angle), adding, “For Mr. Xu Beihong’s painting to share exactly the same lining colour, model standing posture, body features, hairstyle, and facial features as our paintings, this is impossible.” Maybe they are just being modest, but if the assertion is true, then that is one impressive (and pricey!) accidental forgery. So, what have we learned class? Always sign your work, even routine art school sketches!

Left: Standing Nude, 1928 by Xu Beihong; Right: The work in question
Left: Standing Nude, 1928 by Xu Beihong; Right: the work in question. Photo: Beijing Jiuge International Auction Co.

Just can’t get enough of forgery fun? Here are some other attention-grabbing gems:

Fake internet-sold art by Dali, Chagall
Fake Russian Art at Sotheby’s
Australia: “Dozens of Doyles ain’t Doyles”
Leading NY gallery: Murky trade of Robert Motherwell work
79 year old guilty in forging folk art


Written by staff

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Heinrich Campendonk
Mary Fedden
Alberto Giacometti
Mimmo Rotella
Xu Beihong