A Field Guide To 20th Century Art Forgers: by Jonathon Keats
Riccardo Riccardi and Alfredo Fioravanti
For nearly half a century, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited several counterfeit statues of Etruscan warriors incompetently crafted by Riccardo Riccardi and Alfredo Fioravanti, two boys from a small town near Rome who had no idea what authentic Etruscan artifacts looked like. Despite the skepticism of outside experts, the oddly proportioned figures were kept on view in order to avoid institutional embarrassment, enshrining for several generations an arrestingly strange Etruscan aesthetic that never existed in ancient days.
Jean Charles Millet
The grandson of the Barbizon painter Jean-François Millet, Jean Charles Millet exploited the family name – and a stencil Jean-François had made for signing his paintings – by employing a deaf housepainter named Paul Cazot to copy his grandfather's canvases by the hundred. Charged with forgery, Millet defended himself in French court by saying he sold his fakes only to Americans and Englishmen, arguing that he couldn't be blamed for their ignorance. Eventually he was convicted, but only for passing bad checks.
Following the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, Leonardo's masterpiece was illicitly offered for private sale to six different collectors, each of whom received a copy painted by Yves Chaudron. The con worked because the collectors had all heard about the missing original, but each had to keep his illegal purchase secret. It would have been the perfect crime, if only it were real. Later research has shown that Chaudron himself was a fake, fabricated by the Saturday Evening Post journalist Karl Decker, a forger's forger.
Han van Meegeren
The eminent art historian Abraham Bredius believed that Vermeer once went through a religious phase, and that paintings from that period would eventually be discovered. Han van Meegeren helped Bredius to prove his theory by fabricating a Vermeer on a Biblical theme and having it submitted to Bredius for authentication. Though van Meegeren's painting bore no resemblance to authentic Vermeers in terms of content or quality, Bredius declared it a masterpiece. On the strength of that endorsement, van Meegeren made more 'Vermeers'. And the more of them he made, the more convincing all of them became as the growing body of work changed how people viewed Vermeer's actual paintings.
Hired to restore a Gothic church in the West German town of Lübeck in the 1950s, the art conservator Lothar Malskat exceeded expectations by discovering a whole cycle of medieval frescos. Only after two million postage stamps had been printed to celebrate the find did Malskat reveal that he'd made the murals himself, modeling his Biblical figures on school friends and movie stars. Even after the trial, the Lübeck government debated keeping the paintings, loathe to give up the town's newfound popularity with art enthusiasts. Some of the murals remain in place today, six decades after the scandal. Guidebooks don't mention they're fakes.
Elmyr de Hory
The storied life of Elmyr de Hory, master forger of paintings by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, is known primarily through a biography written by Clifford Irving in the late 1960s, a source that is questionable not only on account of de Hory's characteristic self-mythologizing – including a make-believe aristocratic upbringing – but also because of his biographer's next project: Irving's attempted forgery of Howard Hughes's memoirs. The combination of myth and mystery has made de Hory's known forgeries so highly collectable in their own right that de Hory copies are often now forged.
Frustrated as an artist, Tom Keating set out to prove the art world's stupidity by forging drawings and paintings by past greats ranging from John Constable to Amedeo Modigliani, in many cases including what he called "time bombs" – such as underpainting messages in lead white that would be revealed by x-rays – to flaunt the paintings' fraudulence years after they'd been bought. The British public embraced his anti-elitist cause following his eventual confession, garnering a large audience for his TV series teaching everybody how to paint like the masters: his ultimate revenge.
After he was convicted of counterfeiting modern masters including Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall in the late 1960s, the French art forger David Stein began signing his own name to his fakes, and even having some of them featured as movie props in The Moderns. It was ideal cover for his ongoing illicit production of forgeries essentially identical to the paintings for which he was taking public credit.
Konrad Kujau made his living defrauding neo-Nazis and nostalgically fascist Germans by supplying them with memorabilia falsely attributed to Hitler, including nude paintings of Eva Braun, pages from an opera, and ultimately the Fuhrer's personal diaries, which were duly published in Stern. Many who were duped seem to have known it, deeming the money they gave Kujau a small price to pay for 'evidence' of Hitler's culture and humanity.
Counterfeiting drawings and paintings by old masters from Rubens to Brueghel, Eric Hebborn delighted in boasting about his achievements, publishing a handbook sharing his techniques for faking pigments, and claiming that numerous works in public collections were his creations. While some were, others he identified as fakes were genuine, though no amount of scholarship has fully overcome the taint of doubt.