Art Fakes That Fooled (Almost) Everyone
Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning: These are names familiar to art circles. But Pei-Shen Qian? Not so much, or at least not until the 75-year-old painter was indicted for a $33 million art fraud scheme.
Assisted by a pair of Spanish art dealers who enabled the sale of the fake paintings, Qian created forgeries of works by the accomplished artists named above among others. The trio had been defrauding art collectors since at least the late 1980s.
With millions of dollars on the line and a fickle art world always looking to ride out the next big thing, it's easy to see why forgers, particularly those who can't make names as artists themselves, are drawn into creating fakes under the guise of a master painter.
Before the Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonretti became famous enough that merely the mention of his first name would invoke the man centuries after his death, Michelangelo was an up-and-comer just trying to earn a living, even if that meant occasionally moonlighting as a forger.
In 1496, Michelangelo recreated a Roman-era sculpture of the god of love, Cupid. In order to fetch a better price, Michelangelo rubbed dirt on the statue to make it look more worn and ancient before selling it. The sculpture was believed to have been destroyed some 200 years later after changing hands numerous times.
Five hundred years after Michelangelo created the piece, an art professor named Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt in 1996 stumbled upon a statue (pictured here) that had been housed at a Fifth Avenue townhouse in New York. Brandt is convinced that sculpture is the same Cupid created by Michelangelo. Now known as the Michelangelo of Manhattan, the art world is divided on whether this truly represents a Michelangelo sculpture. The Cupid statue has traveled around the art museum circuit, however, even spending time at The Louvre.
Dutch artist Han van Meegeren set out to make a name for himself in a career as a legitimate artist. Unfortunately for van Meegeren, critics didn't seem to agree with that vision, writing off his original works.
As a forger, however, van Meegeren's work drew far more attention in the art world. Van Meegeren chose to paint under the guise of celebrated 17th-century master Jan Vermeer, a painter whose known catalog of work only included a few dozen works. Rather than painting copies of Vermeer's existing pieces, he created works that evoked Vermeer's style, but were a departure from the artist's previous subjects.
Van Meegeren made millions of dollars off of his forgeries, creating an estimated nine fake Vermeers. Unfortunately for van Meegeren, the jig was up at the end of World War II, when one of his forgeries turned up in the collection owned by Hermann Goering, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany. The connection forced van Meegeren to confess to being a forger in order to save himself.
Under suspicion that van Meegeren had been in league with the Nazis, an act of treason, van Meegeren insisted that he had instead sold forgeries that he had created himself. In order to convince a skeptical court, van Meegeren spent two months creating an original Vermeer forgery in front of six witnesses.
Although he would later be convicted of lesser charges relating to the fraud -- he died of a heart attack before he would serve a day of his year-long sentence -- van Meegeren was celebrated as a hero among the Dutch for his cunning in fooling both the art world and the Nazis.
Mona Lisa is now the most famous portait on Earth thanks in large part to its theft by Vincenzo Peruggia. The theft of the Mona Lisa was only part of the plan. The real pay-off was in the forgeries.
During its disappearance, while Peruggia held on to the original, Yves Chaudron, an art restorer, was commissioned by Eduardo de Valfierno, who masterminded the heist, to paint six copies of Leonardo da Vinci's famed painting. Those six copies were then sold to six millionaires in the United States who were fooled into believing they had purchased the stolen portrait.
That's the story drawn by journalist Karl Decker when he published an account of the operation in the Saturday Evening Post, as retold by TIME. None of the forgeries have ever surfaced, however, which casts doubts on the veracity that there were any forgeries to begin with.
That doesn't mean that there aren't other copies of the Mona Lisa floating around. In 2012, El Prado in Madrid announced the discovery of another copy of the Mona Lisa, seen here, painted by someone who was in the same room with da Vinci as he painted the original.
When the same painting goes up for sale at the same time in two different place, there must be a problem with one of them. That's what happened in 2000 when Sotheby's and Christies's auctioned off the same artwork by French artist Paul Gauguin, Vase de Fleurs.
Christie's found out the painting on its auction block was a fake, while the painting sold by Sotheby's was real, and in fact placed up for auction by the very person behind the Christie's forgery: Ely Sakhai. An investigation into the art dealer showed that Sakhai had sold forgeries purported to be from artists including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Marc Chagall, Claude Monet, Paul Klee and of course Gauguin.
Sakhai worked by buying the original paintings by these artistic masters, thereby obtaining a genuine certificate of authenticity for those works. He would then commission painters in China to reproduce the works in his possession. Sakhai would then obtain a second certificate and attempt to sell the forgery, usually in Asian markets, while also reselling the original, typically in Western markets.
Following the discovery, Sakhai was placed under arrest and later convicted of fraud, for which he received a sentence of 41 months in prison.
All art forgers are looking to change history, but in the case of The Black Admiral, there isn't a profit motive behind this phony artwork.
The Revolutionary War-era painting appears to depict a black officer in naval uniform. The work was symbolic of the efforts and inclusion of black military personnel to the war effort, and even appeared in history textbooks.
When the painting's owner decided to have it restored, the undertaking revealed that the officer shown in the portrait was originally depicted as white. At some point in the 1970s, the painting was altered by an unknown forger, who took clear steps to age the parts of the work that had been changed.
If there is anything like a worst case scenario for a forger, it's for the original artist to stumble onto a fake and expose the imitation as a fraud.
In 1967, Marc Chagall happened upon a New York art gallery that claimed to be displaying three of his watercolors. Chagall immediately recognized them as forgeries and alerted authorities.
The paintings on display were in fact the work of David Stein, who just in his early 30s had made a name for himself as an art dealer. Over his career, he was responsible for pushing hundreds of fake drawings and paintings by artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Paul Cézanne and others, earning millions from the sales.
After serving prison sentences in the United States and France for his crimes, Stein attempted to make a living by selling his own paintings based on the infamy he earned for his talents as a forger.
In 2005, one of the most well-known portraits of William Shakespeare was unmasked as a forgery.
Known as the Flower portrait, the painting bears the date 1609 on its canvas and carries a resemblance to the engraving of Shakespeare's likeness that appeared in the first folio of his published works. Analysis of the painting's pigments, however, revealed that the portrait was created about 200 years later, just as there was a resurgence of interest in Shakespeare's work, one expert told CBS News at the time.
Experts had never totally accepted the idea that the painting was the work of one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, and the research simply confirmed those suspicions.
Like many other forgers before him, Elmyr de Hory's ambition was to create art. A friend mistaking a Picasso that had actually been drawn by de Hory in 1946 marked the start of de Hory's decades-long career as a forger.
While living in France early in his forging career, he would sell paintings locally for a few hundred dollars each time. Later, de Hory expanded his business by taking his forgeries abroad to other countries in Europe and across the Atlantic. He also painted works claiming to be from Amedeo Modigliani, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Matisse, selling thousands of copies along with his partner, Jacques Chamberlain, who had in fact been defrauding de Hory.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, de Hory's works were increasingly being identified as forgeries by art dealers and collectors, and authorities caught up with him. After serving a brief stint in jail, de Hory found worldwide fame following the publication of a biography by Clifford Irving, who himself later forged a Howard Hughes memoir, and a movie by Orson Welles.
Despite the fact that they're forgeries, paintings created by de Hory actually perform well in art auctions, so much so that imitators have ironically created forgeries of de Hory's work in an attempt to pass it off as his own.
Wolfgang Beltracchi, a self-described German hippie, and his wife, Helene, are responsible for what might be the greatest fake art scam in history, according to Vanity Fair. A self-taught painter, Beltracchi has claimed to have created hundreds of forgeries representing the works of over 100 different artists over a career of nearly 40 years. The Beltracchis were charged with the forgery and sale of 14 paintings for a total of $22 million, but there earnings from imitation is thought to be much higher.
Like van Meegeren, Beltracchi didn't create copies, but rather originals in the style of the artist, and using materials from the time period and aging the artworks appropriately. Helene claimed that she had acquired the collection through inheritance, and the couple even created fake archival photos with Helene dressed as her grandmother with the paintings in the background to bolster claims to their authenticity.
The forgeries were sold by big auction houses, like Sotheby's and Christie's, even appearing on the covers of their catalogs. One fake Max Ernst painting was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The artist himself claimed in a 60 Minutes interview that he's seen some of his other forgeries on display as well. Another was purchased and later resold by famous actor and comedian Steve Martin.
The scheme unraveled after a scientific analysis of a fake Max Ernst painting showed a modern pigment that wouldn't have exist in Ernst's time. Further investigation of other Beltracchi-sold works revealed the extent to which the couple had duped the art world.
Not all forgery cases are cut and dry. Whether a work is the genuine article or a convincing imitation can be a heated debate, as the question of authenticity can come down to different conclusions drawn based on analysis from experts in the field.
Take the kouros sculpture, a sixth century B.C. statue traced to ancient Greece, acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum, which arrived in 1983 when it was purchased for $9 million. When a fake torso turned up in 1990 that bore striking similarities to the Getty korous, the museum purchased the fake, and conducted a thorough investigation that cost the museum even more money, as reported by the New York Times over 20 years ago.