A Brief History of Art Forgery—From Michelangelo to Knoedler & Company
Brought down by accusations that it was selling forgeries, the Knoedler & Company gallery in New York was shuttered in 2011, stunning the art world. The once-esteemed American gallery, founded in 1846, sold approximately 40 forged paintings supplied by art dealer Glafira Rosales, who claimed to have access to never-before-seen works owned by an anonymous collector.
That story unraveled, and it was revealed that Rosales was actually commissioning paintings from a struggling Chinese immigrant named Pei-Shen Qian who’d taken classes at the Art Students League of New York. Rosales was paying him thousands of dollars, while the gallery charged millions for the paintings. Five years on, the scandal is still not entirely settled, and the art world is anxiously awaiting news concerning two lawsuits against the gallery and its associates currently being fought in the Southern District of New York.
Thanks to the Knoedler gallery scandal and the skyrocketing prices of art, the issue of art authentication is garnering a great deal of attention. But forgery has a long and fascinating history, spanning from the Renaissance to today.
The Renaissance ushered in the rise of Humanism, a movement that emphasized individuality and the importance of earthly, rather than divine, matters. During this time, it became more common for artists to identify their works, as buyers desired authentic pieces by recognized artists. The resulting concept of individual genius and talent is perhaps best embodied by the Italian sculptor and artist Michelangelo. Ironically, however, Michelangelo himself created forgeries. In 1496, he sculpted a sleeping cupid and then buried it to make it appear older. Michelangelo sold the sculpture to a cardinal, who eventually discovered that it was artificially aged. The cardinal demanded a refund from the dealer who sold him the piece but allowed Michelangelo to keep his portion of the proceeds because he was so impressed with the work. The incident added to Michelangelo’s fame, and was praised as a “triumph over antiquity.” (The Renaissance master also had a proclivity for copying other artists’ drawings, keeping originals and returning copies in their place.)
Han van Meegeren
The fascination with a forger doubles when their work has duped Nazi agents. Han van Meegeren, a popular painter in the Netherlands who was criticized for being derivative, set out to prove his talents by forging famous artists. He planned to wait until his paintings attracted critical acclaim, and then he would reveal their true origins, exacting revenge on those who had doubted his talents. Once he achieved financial success from his forgeries, however, the temptation was too great and he continued his criminal activities—activities that went unnoticed even as his work grew sloppy due to alcoholism and a morphine addiction. Eventually one of his Vermeer forgeries made its way into the collection of Hermann Göring, a central member of the Nazi high command. When World War II ended with German defeat, van Meegeren was arrested in his home country for selling Dutch cultural property to the Nazis, an act of treason punishable by death. Confronted with this punishment, van Meegeren confessed. In November 1947, after a highly publicized trial, he was convicted of falsification and fraud charges and was sentenced to one year in prison. (He never served his time, dying before his incarceration.) In 1947, a newspaper poll found van Meegeren to be the second most popular man in the Netherlands, after the prime minister.
Elmyr de Hory
Elmyr de Hory inspired Orson Welles’s F is for Fake (1974). Facts about de Hory’s life are shrouded in mystery: born in 1906 as Elemér Albert Hoffmann, he used a pseudonym and created an alternate personal history, claiming that his father was a wealthy diplomat. After escaping a Berlin prison hospital during World War II, de Hory sold art by claiming that his forgeries were from a Hungarian family estate. He successfully mimicked the style of many artists to the point that his forgeries were featured in several art books. But over time he attracted the attention of FBI and Interpol. Eventually, de Hory committed suicide while under investigation for fraud in 1976.
Rather than rely solely on the skill of a forger, in the 1980s, John Drewe cooked up a scheme that ingeniously involved creating fake provenance information. In 1986, John Myatt, a struggling painter, placed an advertisement in the British satirical biweekly Private Eye offering his services. Drewe (then posing as a nuclear physicist) saw the advertisement and commissioned works by Myatt for his own personal use before convincing Myatt to paint forgeries. Drewe sold the forgeries to dealers, placed them in auction houses and galleries, and even attempted to donate them to museum collections. He falsely aged works with vacuum dust, varnish, and rusted picture frames.
But Drew’s deception went beyond the canvas and included engineering fake histories for the works by forging certificates of authenticity, invoices, and documents from what he purported were previous owners. Drewe infiltrated archives by introducing false records, replacing old records with new pages. Although clever enough to fool some art market professionals, a number of connoisseurs raised questions about the authenticity of the works. After Drewe left his long-term live-in girlfriend—Bat-Sheva Goudsmid, an Israeli immigrant and children’s eye specialist who once caught him smearing dirt on a “Giacometti” in the backyard—she reported her ex to the police and to the Tate. For his part in the forgery scheme, Myatt received a shortened jail term for cooperating with law enforcement agents, and he gained fame for his high-quality paintings, partly due to his collaboration with Drewe.
Perhaps the most financially “successful” forger, Wolfgang Beltracchi, was discovered in 2010 after 40 years of forging paintings by the likes of Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk, Max Pechstein, and Fernand Léger earned him many millions. Beltracchi was sentenced to six years in prison, but was released in January 2015 just over three years after being convicted. He claims to be one of the most “exhibited painters in the world,” and his forgeries have even appeared on the cover of a Christie’s auction catalogue. Shockingly, Beltracchi stated that his motives come from fulfilling the desire of the forged artist: “In my thoughts, I created an original work, an unpainted painting by the artists of the past.” And since his release, he has gone on to create many more paintings under his own name, “inspired” by the artists he used to outright fake, which have reportedly begun earning him seven-figure sums once again.
Like van Meegeren, Eric Hebborn identified revenge against the establishment as an impetus to turn to forgery. Hebborn began his career working for a restorer. However, the British artist ultimately began forging new works from old materials, even moving to Italy and opening a gallery through which to sell his creations. When his deception was discovered, Hebborn cashed in on his fame as a skilled con artist. His memoir, Drawn to Trouble, was a clear assault on the art world, discussing how he deceived art experts who were willing to accept forgeries for the sake of economic profit. (He went on to author two other books, and was featured in a TV documentary.) In 1996, Hebborn was murdered, his body found on a street in Rome, his skull broken. His death remains an unsolved crime.
Living forger Ken Perenyi has recently attracted attention, following the 2013 publication of his memoir, Caveat Emptor. Perenyi is regard as one of the most skillful forgers of 18th- and 19th-century British and American paintings. And, like other criminals, he grew dependent on the illegal revenue. Eventually the FBI began investigating his work, going so far as to perform chemical analysis on pieces he sold through auction houses. However, the agency mysteriously closed the investigation five years later. Perenyi started a “new business model” in which he openly sold fake paintings as reproductions. Perenyi now has a successful business selling these copies (though he must clearly advise customers that they are purchasing reproductions). Similar to Beltracchi, Perenyi posits that he is fulfilling the wishes of the artists, having boasted, “I’m convinced that if these artists were alive today, they would thank me. I’m somebody that understands and appreciates their work.”
The idea that skilled art forgers are continuing the legacy of past masters is problematic. Artistic geniuses are venerated for their innovation and power to present the visual world in a different way, not their ability to mimic—forgers do not offer innovation and originality to the art world. In addition, art forgery not only defrauds buyers and leads to financial losses for both individuals and institutions, but it also damages our understanding of art history by misattributing works to well-known artists. Fakes and forgeries deceive art scholarship and dilute an artist’s body of work. And although their lives may be fascinating, art forgers are not white knights gallantly providing us with lost masterpieces.
A previous version of this article contained an error introduced during editing, which incorrectly identified the forger who, following success, was beset with alcoholism and a morphine addiction. It was Han van Meegeren, not Elmyr de Hory.