6 Greatest Art Fakers in History

The following reprinted from Uncle John's Giant 10th Anniversary Bathroom Reader. It's interesting to study the paintings of the great masters ... but sometimes it's even more fun to study the work of the great fakers. Like these folks:

Han van Meegeren

Han van Meegeren painting his last forgery Jesus among the Doctors Background: At the end of World War II, Dutch authorities began investigating the sale of Dutch national treasures to Nazi officials. They learned that Han van Meegeren, a struggling Dutch artist, had sold a priceless 17th-century Vermeer called Christ and the Adulteress to Nazi leader Hermann Goering for $256,000. Once the painting was repossessed and authenticated as a work painted during Vermeer's "middle period," Van Meegeren was arrested and charged with collaborated with the Nazis - a crime punishable by death. The Truth: Van Meegeren defended himself by saying that there was no Vermeer "middle period," and that he had faked all six of the paintings attributed to those years of the artist's life. Van Meegeren also claimed to have painted two works by Pieter de Hooch, and one by ter Borch. The judge didn't believe him. But to be sure, he sent the artist back to the studio (under guard) and told him to "paint another Vermeer." Van Meegeren quickly created something called Jesus Among the Doctors. It was, by all appearances, painted in the style of Vermeer. What Happened: The judge dropped the treason charges. But as each of the paintings Van Meegeren took credit for were tested and proved to be fakes, he was arrested again - this time for forgery and fraud. He was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison; he died from a heart attack one month after the trial.

David Stein

Background: In the mid-60s, a 30-year-old art collector named David Stein walked into the shop of one of New York's top art dealers with three watercolor paintings by Russian painter Marc Chagall. The dealer bought all three for $10,000.  

The Truth: Stein had painted all three "Chagalls" that morning before lunch. He made the new canvases look old by soaking them in Lipton's tea, and forged letters of authentication at the frame shop while waiting for the paintings to be framed.

What Happened: As Stein put it, "I should have stuck to dead men." By pure coincidence, Marc Chagall happened to be in New York that very same day ... and the art dealer who bought the paintings had an appointment to meet with him. The dealer brought the paintings to the meeting, and Chagall immediately denounced them as fakes. Stein was arrested and spent nearly four years in American and French prisons. But the bust was such a boost to his reputation that when he got out of prison, he was able to make a living from his own original paintings. (Photo: Greatest art forgers and fakers in the world - lots more info about art forgery there!)

Pavel Jerdanowitch

Exaltation by Pavel Jerdanowitch

Background: In the spring of 1925, the Russian-born Jerdanowitch submitted a painting called Exaltation to a New York art exhibit. The red and green colors were unusual for the period, and the face of the woman in the painting was distorted, but art critics admired the work, and Jerdanowitch was invited to exhibit at a New York show in 1926. He did - this time displaying a painting called Aspiration and explaining that he was the founder of the "Disumbrationist" school of painting. The following year, he showed two more paintings, Adoration and Illumination. Jerdanowitch's groundbreaking work caused a storm, and he was hailed as a visionary.

The Truth: "Pavel Jerdanowitch" was actually Paul Jordan-Smith, a Latin scholar who hated abstract and modernist trend in art. When an art critic criticized his wife's realistic painting as "definitely of the old school" in 1925, he set out to prove that critics would praise any painting they couldn't understand. "I asked my wife for paint and canvas," he recounted after admitting the hoax. "I'd never tried to paint anything in my life." The Disumbrationist School was born.

What Happened: Smith admitted the ruse to the Los Angeles Times in 1927, but the confession only fueled interest in his work. A Chicago gallery owner displayed the paintings in 1928, and later called the show "the most widely noticed exhibition I have ever heard of." More on Pavel Jerdanowitch at the Museum of Hoaxes.

D. S. Windle

Background: In 1936 Windle entered a painting called Abstract Painting of Woman in the International Surrealist Exhibition taking place in London. The work was one of the most talked-about and admired paintings of the show.

The Truth: D. S. Windle ("De Swindle") was actually B. Howitt-Lodge, a portrait painter who hated surrealist art. He created his painting out of "a phantasmagoria of paint blobs, variegated beads, a cigarette stub, Christmas tinsel, pieces of hair, and a sponge." Howitt-Lodge chose the materials, he later admitted, because he wanted to create "the worst possible mess" and enter it in "one of the most warped and disgusting shows I've ever seen."

What Happened: Modernists were unmoved by his confession - they accepted Howitt-Lodge's work as a genuine surrealist art, even if he didn't. "He may think it's a hoax," one fan told reporters, "but he's an artist and unconsciously he may be a surrealist. Aren't we all?"

Alceo Dossena

Background: In 1922 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts paid $100,000 for the marble tomb of a wealthy Italian woman named Maria Caterina Savelli, who died in 1430. The tomb was supposedly carved by a famous Florentine sculptor named Mino de Fia-Savelli, and was so impressive that the museum set the exhibit up right at the building's entrance.

The Truth: As Kathryn Lindskoog writes in Fakes, Frauds & Other Malarkey, "No one seemed to notice that the Mino Tomb was dated one year after its sculptor was born, and that the brief Latin inscription on the tomb, which was naively copied from a book about the Savelli family, said, "At last the above-mentioned Maria Caterina Savelli died."

What Happened: No one realized it was a fake until 1928, when an obscure Italian sculptor named Alceo Dossena sued art dealer Alfredo Fasoli for $66,000, claiming that without his knowledge, Fasoli had been selling copies of his Renaissance art as the genuine article. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts refused to accept that the Mino Tomb was a fake ... until Dossena produced photographs of the work in progress, as well as a toe that had broken off a figure carved in the tomb. Museums all over the world scoured their collections looking for Dossena's fakes - hundreds were found. The Cleveland Museum of Art was particularly hard hit - after finding modern nails deep inside a "13th-century" Madonna and child, it replaced the piece with a marble statue of Athena that cost $120,000. That statue also turned out to be a Dossena fake. For what it's worth, not everyone suffered from the scandal: Alceo Dossena flourished. People became so interested in his work that he was able to launch a career as a legitimate artist. (Photo: A History of Art Forgery)

Tom Keating

Background: In 1976 thirteen paintings by Samuel Palmer, a famous English artist, inexplicably came on the market at the same time.

The Truth: When the London Times challenged their authenticity, an English painter named Tom Keating wrote in to confess that he had forged the paintings - as well as 2,500 other paintings during his illicit 20-year career, including works attributed to Rembrandt, Degas, Goya, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Van Gogh, and others. Keating claimed he left a clue in every painting that proved it wasn't authentic - sometimes he used modern materials; other times he painted "this is a fake" on the canvas using lead-based paint, which would show up on X-rays. But he was never caught.

What Happened: Keating was in such poor health when he confessed that he was never put on trial. He became a cult hero in England for fooling art experts for so long, and his own paintings soared in value. One which he called Monet and his Family in their Houseboat, sold at an auction for $32,000. By the time of his death in 1983, his work was so popular that other forgers were cashing in by copying his work. (Photo: Rod Ebdon via Fine Art of the Fake Makers)

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Giant 10th Anniversary Bathroom Reader, which comes packed with 504 pages of great stories. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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If one sees the fake 'Emmausgangers' by Van Meegeren, it is very hard to understand that experts took it for a real Vermeer. It is a really clumsy painting, compared to the works of the master:

Apart from Elmyr de Hory, I was expecting to see the work of master forger Geert Jan Jansen, who, after being caught by the French, got all his work back, because experts couldn't distinguish the fakes from the originals.
Even Karel Appel said the fakes by Jansen were definitely "original Appels"! (Same trick that De Hory played with Van Dongen...)

Another interesting forger and smuggler is Michel van Rijn, who fooled people by telling them he was a descendant of the famous Rembrandt van Rijn. (Which isn't true, athough Michel also looks a lot like Rembrandt.)
This relation should explain the fact that he had so many 'undiscovered Rembrands'.
Later turned out they were all fakes, of course.
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