One of the most prolific forgers in American history, Mark Landis spent 20 years posing as a philanthropist, donating fakes he created to more than 50 museums while never making a profit. “I have never been treated with so much respect and dignity in my life,” he said. “I got addicted to it.” Despite the deception, Landis never made any money from it, so it was not seen as a crime.
Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi profited greatly from their crimes – passing off their own creations as works by artists such as Max Ernst and Fernand Léger, and selling them for millions, before being caught out by the wrong pigment. They both served long prison sentences. But when interviewed for a forthcoming book, they said they got a kick out of fooling a “fraudulent” art world. “For some counterfeiters, I think it’s a kind of pathological behavior,” says Wieseman. “It’s a fascinating subculture.”
Tricks of the trade
Crime writer Peter James interviewed real-life art forgers to research his latest book, Picture You Dead, revealing secrets such as sourcing a genuine artist’s period dress so that any fabric fibers that made it onto the paint work , would date it correctly.
Counterfeiters are smart, Fletcher agrees. “Good forgers will have done their research. They will know not to use pigments made after the supposed date of creation of the work. This is the kind of stuff that tripped up forgers 50 years ago.” He’s heard of counterfeiters sending test pieces to labs dedicated to determining authenticity to see if they’re on the right track. Forgers are likely to target artists where there is speculation or uncertainty about exactly how many works they created in their lifetime – so as to cause less suspicion when a “new”, uncatalogued work suddenly appears on the market.
But as the counterfeiters get better, so does the technology that catches them. “I would hate to be a forger now, because I think the scientific techniques and the imaging techniques have become so sophisticated,” says Wieseman. “It is possible to determine the place where a specific mineral pigment comes from, for example a region in Afghanistan.”
Scandals like the Knoedler one make the art world extra cautious. “It kind of exposed that the biggest names in this trade are just as exposed to getting it wrong,” says Fletcher. “And some galleries and auction houses have a lot more reputation at stake than others.”