Great art can be a worthwhile investment, quite apart from its beauty. The lure of easy money has led many artists to attempt to ape their betters, gaining large fortunes from their imitations of the masters and their works. As the means possessed by auctioneers and buyers to detect forgeries have grown, so too have the skills and subterfuge of the forgers. Many forgers have gone on to achieve their own kind of fame, the fame of the master con artist.
10. Yves Chaudron
The Mona Lisa is perhaps the most instantly recognizable piece of art in existence. In 1911 the famous portrait of an unknown woman was stolen, and when the culprit, Vincenzo Peruggia, was captured, he maintained that he believed the painting should be housed in Italy. However, it seems that it was less patriotism and more native greed and the desire for profit that motivated the crime. According to one theory, an Argentinian had arranged for six sales of the “original” Mona Lisa to buyers who would in fact each receive forgeries painted by Yves Chaudron. It’s hard to feel sorry for such buyers; after all – caveat emptor.
9. Tony Tetro
The LA district attorney called Tetro “the single largest forger of art works in America.” With his career in forgery having lasted over 30 years, this doesn’t seem like hyperbole.
Tetro forged pieces of art by a wide range of masters – from Rembrandt to Dali to Chagall – and was only caught when artist Hiro Yamagata was surprised to find what was purported to be his own work hanging in a gallery.
After spending 5 years in prison, Tetro forged a new career in the production of “forged” works for private clients, but a court order that requires him to sign all of his works should stop him from pulling the wool over more buyers’ eyes.
8. Otto Wacker
Forgery was a family business for Otto Wacker, a respected German art dealer in the 1920s. His brother Leonhard was a talented painter and restorer of artwork, who was likely the true creator of the works that Wacker passed off as genuine Van Goghs.
It was no doubt Wacker’s professional reputation that led Van Gogh experts to accept his story that the paintings came from Russia by way of Switzerland and that the Russian individual involved had to stay anonymous for fear of family reprimand. In 1928 the fakes were found out, although several art critics and dealers continued to believe that they were genuine. In the end, however, X-rays and pigment analysis proved them to be fakes and Wacker was sentenced to 19 months in prison.
7. Ely Sakhai
Ely Sakhai ran an art forgery sweatshop in the attic of his gallery, where Chinese immigrants slaved over copies of paintings by Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Sakhai covered his tracks well, never buying well-known works and selling the originals to Western buyers and fakes to Asian buyers who were unlikely to have the paintings assessed.
He was found out when, in 2000, the two big auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, both offered the same painting for sale – Paul Gauguin’s Vase de Fleurs. The Christie’s painting was soon found to be a fake and the FBI followed the trail right to Sakhai’s door.
6. Giovanni Bastianini
Bastiani became infamous as the world’s first well-known forger of art. In the 19th century he sculpted busts in the style of Renaissance greats, aged them artificially and waited for them to be “discovered.” He would have stayed anonymous for a long time, as nobody ever had any notion that the pieces were not genuine, but his partner in crime eventually gave him up when he became resentful of his poor cut of the takings. There clearly has never been honor amongst thieves.
5. John Myatt and John Drew
John Myatt tried to be an honest man. A gifted artistic mimic, he originally offered his paintings for sale with the tagline “Genuine fakes.” However, his collaboration with John Drew led him into criminality when Drew found he could re-sell the paintings for up to £25,000. So began what has been called “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century,” in which Myatt forged over 200 works by Bissiere, Chagall, Le Corbusier, Giacometti and more.
Convicted in 1999 and released 4 months later, Myatt now paints portraits and copies, and “genuine” Myatt forgeries have sold for up to £45,000 ($74,500).
4. Tom Keating
Tom Keating broke the law to make a point. He found the artistic world to be rotten and corrupt – a system where those in the know connived “to line their own pockets at the expense both of naive collectors and impoverished artists.”
His forgeries were works of subversive warfare with “time-bombs” indicating their inauthenticity planted within them so that they would emerge as forgeries and, he hoped, bring down the system. His forgeries included works by Samuel Palmer, François Boucher, Edgar Degas, Amedeo Modigliani and Rembrandt. He has claimed 2,000 forgeries but refused to identify them.
3. Eric Hebborn
Eric Hebborn preferred to create his own paintings in the style of the masters rather than copy existing works, which handily meant that he could not be found out by two owners of the same painting having a quick conversation. He was found out when a curator noticed that two paintings by different artists had been executed on the same paper – though he continued to create forgeries for the next 5 years.
In 1984 Hebborn confessed his crime, not out of guilt but instead to denigrate the art world that had rejected his original works; he later published The Art Forger’s Handbook. In 1996 he was found in an alleyway, his head crushed in, although it is unknown if this attack was related to his forgery.
2. Elmyr de Hory
Immortalized in the book Fake! by Clifford Irving and the movie F for Fake by Orson Welles, Elmyr de Hory claimed to have sold over 1,000 paintings to reputable galleries and dealers worldwide, faking works by masters such as Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, and Renoir. He began his descent into forgery when his friends mistook his copies of famous painters’ works for originals, creating original works in the style of famous masters rather than copying existing images.
Every so often he would try to sell his own paintings, but he never found a market for them and would return to the lucrative business of copying. De Hory was constantly short-changed and cheated by his business partners – at least one of whom may have signed the works with the names of the aped artist, as de Hory always denied doing this, maintaining that this made him innocent of criminal charges. Following his death by suicide, his paintings soared in value, such that de Horys have since themselves been forged.
1. Han van Meegeren
Han van Meegeren was another painter who turned to forgery when his own work was scorned by critics. Hugely talented, he was arrested by the Dutch government during WWII for collaboration with the Nazis, as he was held to have sold a Vermeer to Hermann Göring. He confessed to forgery as this was a lesser crime than treason. His forgeries were so accomplished that he had to paint a Vermeer before experts to prove his talent and thus his innocence.
He died in 1947, the same year that an opinion poll named him the second most popular person in the whole nation – the Dutch people admiring his cunning in fooling both art experts and the Nazis. His paintings sold for such high prices that his own son was later found to have forged his father’s work and sold them as “genuine” van Meegeren forgeries.