Ship of Fools: The Five Most Memorable Art Cons

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Ship of Fools: The Five Most Memorable Art Cons

My fiancé and I recently visited the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market in New York City. We started out hunting for a fish-eye mirror, but instead found ourselves sorting through stacks of unique antique maps. The man selling them insisted that most were originals and more than worth his steep asking prices; but despite my lofty daydreams of how great the intricate cartography would look hanging above our sofa, I was very skeptical. Just because I was getting caught up in home-decorating fantasies didn’t mean I was willing to roll over and let this guy rip me off.

Now, that was just me haggling over some old maps at a flea market—professional buyers and sellers in the high-stakes art world take this authentication process much more seriously. Sometimes, an item found at a neighborhood yard sale turns out to be a priceless, one-of-a-kind work from a notable artist; other times, a piece purchased from a supposedly high-end art dealer is just a cheap replica of an original. This means that the people buying the art will usually go to great lengths to prove it’s the real deal, just as those selling it will bend over backward to prove they’re peddling something that’s legitimately worth a pile of dough.

Despite most people’s caution, however, there are some individuals who’ve made their mark on the art world by duping everyone involved. Forgers, as they’re commonly known, specialize in making people believe that certain works of art have either great monetary value or significant historical relevance, even when neither quality is present. Some artists who’ve been shunned by critics or consumers even use forgery as a means of exacting revenge, often working ferociously to perfect their fakes. Here are five that have stolen the show over the years.

Han van Meegeren
According to Edward Dolnick, author of The Forger’s Spell, Han van Meegeren was the force behind the greatest art hoax of the entire twentieth century: he is renowned for having managed to successfully pass several works off as those of famed seventeenth-century Dutch artist Jan Vermeer. According to a July 2008 National Public Radio story, van Meegeren “did extensive research and experimentation with canvases, paints, and aging techniques. And he developed an ingenious way to hoodwink the experts through the use of plastics.” He took these involved steps to try to make his paintings look as if they were three hundred years old. In 1947, van Meegeren was sentenced to one year in prison, after authorities traced one of his forgeries to a Nazi and avid art collector named Hermann Goering, who had the prized “Vermeer” when police invaded his home.

Tom Keating
Purportedly put off by the pervasive snobbery in the art world, Keating set out to make a point with his forgeries by undermining the system that he believed made it impossible for real artists to succeed. According to PremierePaintings.com, Keating took great pains to generate “misleading provenances for his paintings,” including “acquiring old frames containing Christie’s auction labels.” He gained notoriety in 1976, when he was exposed for having produced a series of drawings that he’d passed off as having been created by Samuel Palmer. Keating is also known for having planted “time bombs” in all his work: according to ArtFake.net, Keating would write “snide or blatantly rude comments” in lead white on the canvases before he started the paintings; these notations would show up only when X-rayed. After his arrest, Keating claimed to have produced thousands of paintings in the style of more than one hundred artists, but refused to give any detailed information to authorities about the locations of any of the work.

The Flower Portrait
In April 2005, the BBC reported that a famous portrait of William Shakespeare called The Flower Portrait (named for one of its owners, Sir Desmond Flower) was a fake. Experts and scholars had long questioned the painting’s authenticity, and this particular scientific analysis proved that they were correct. The piece—an image of Shakespeare in a wide white collar—has been widely reproduced and had 1609 inscribed on it, but it’s now confirmed that it actually dates back to sometime between 1818 and 1840. Britain’s National Portrait Gallery curator, Tarnya Cooper, told BBC News in April 2008 that this was “exactly the time when there was a resurgence of interest in Shakespeare’s plays.”

Elmyr de Hory
Hungarian artist Elmyr de Hory is known as another of the twentieth century’s most famous art forgers; when he was arrested in 1968, de Hory claimed to have passed off more than one thousand paintings by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir as his own. Reports TheDailyBeast.com, “So well-regarded was his fakery that after 1968 he continued to paint and sell ‘forgeries,’ signed with his own name.” In an even more interesting twist, much of what is known of de Hory is based on stories he told his biographer, Clifford Irving, who was later convicted of faking an autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.

Kenneth Walton
According to his own website, former Sacramento lawyer Kenneth Walton was, “in late 1998, a somewhat unproductive and very unhappy junior attorney working for the third-largest law firm in Sacramento”—and “eager for distraction,” which led to his selling art on eBay. But what started as an innocent “distraction” took a sure turn for the worse when Walton soon began practicing “shill bidding,” the act of bidding on one’s own items in an attempt to raise the desirability, and ultimately the price, of the item for sale. Already under investigation by the FBI, Walton found his scam coming to a head when he tried to sell a painting that “bidders” were speculating may have been painted by twentieth-century American painter Richard Diebenkorn; when Walton was nabbed, the work was about to fetch $135,805 on eBay.

Unanswered Questions
The discovery of art forgeries is likely to go on for many years to come, as each time a high-profile work changes hands, its provenance is called into question. As recently as July 2010, Portrait of a Commander Being Dressed for Battle, which has been attributed to seventeenth-century baroque artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens and is valued at over $13 million, was sold by Princess Diana’s family at a Christie’s auction. According to TheDailyBeast.com, while Christie’s in-house panel of experts agrees on its authenticity, some outside art aficionados believe the painting is actually the work of Pourbus, a contemporary of Rubens. TheDailyBeast.com goes on to state, “Experts believe it will take years, if ever, to come to a definitive conclusion.” And the battle wages on.