Art forgery is a divisive topic that inspires awe and anger in equal measure. While galleries, dealers and collectors certainly don’t want fakes on their hands, it’s hard not to be impressed by painters who can imitate the greats so believably. Even with all the technology designed to verify artworks, there are still lots of convincing fakes still on display in museums around the world.
Some of the most high profile art forgers went on to become celebrities in their own right, with plenty of contemporary collectors still willing to knowingly pay thousands for counterfeits. Here, we examine the five painters behind the most famous art forgeries of all time.
British artist John Myatt has gone down in history as the man behind “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century”, as Scotland Yard put it. He painted an estimated 200 forgeries, many of which were sold by some of the biggest auction houses in the world including Sotheby’s and Phillips. His career as a forger began after he started legitimately selling counterfeits, having placed an advert for “genuine fakes” in Private Eye. Though Myatt was honest to begin with, this changed when a regular customer named John Drewe revealed that Christie’s auction house had paid £25,000 for one of Myatt’s ‘Albert Gleizes’ paintings.
From then on, he forged works by artists such as Chagall, Giacometti and Matisse. Myatt ended his partnership with Drewe in 1993, growing tired of the unsavoury way in which Drewe handled their finances. Both were eventually arrested two years later, when Drewe’s angry ex-partner told the police what they had done. As he cooperated and helped to convict Drewe, Myatt was only sentenced to a year in prison, for which he served just four months. Since his release in 1999, Myatt has continued to paint, working on commission, and marking each piece as a fake. He has also enjoyed a television career, appearing on shows like Sky Arts’ Mastering the Art and Brush with Fame.
Tom Keating claimed to have faked over 2,000 paintings by more than 100 different artists, including Rembrandt and Samuel Palmer. The British art restorer and forger declared that his counterfeits were motivated by his socialist politics rather than financial gain. He wrote in his book The Fake’s Progress that: “It seemed disgraceful to me how many [artists] had died in poverty. All their lives they had been exploited by unscrupulous dealers and then, as if to dishonor their memory, these same dealers continued to exploit them in death.” In his eyes, his fakes were an attack on the gallery system, intended to fool the experts, and break the industry.
After The Times published an article accusing him of his crimes in 1970, Keating confessed to his forgeries, and was arrested in 1979 alongwith his former lover and accomplice Jane Kelly. Though she had to serve time in prison after pleading guilty, Keating escaped a sentence after being severely injured in a motorcycle accident, later developing bronchitis in hospital. The charges against him were dropped, as he looked unlikely to survive, although his health did improve and he lived until 1984. Keating’s works still sell for thousands of pounds, and in 2005, The Guardian reported counterfeits of his own forgeries were selling on the market for between £5,000 and £10,000.
Han van Meegeren
Han van Meegeren was a Dutch artist who turned to forgery after his peers criticised his own work for its unoriginality. In response, he decided to prove his talent by creating and selling a piece said to be by Johannes Vermeer and created a ‘new’ Vermeer called Supper at Emmaus in 1937. It was widely admired by critics, with famous art expert Abraham Bredius calling it “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft”. The painting was then bought by Rotterdam’s prestigious Boijmans Gallery.
Though van Meegeren had initially planned to reveal that he was the true creator, he instead continued forging, creating six new Vermeer works which made him an estimated $60 million according to The Telegraph. As well as selling to world famous museums, he also counted Nazi leader Hermann Göring as a customer. This ultimately led to van Meegeren’s downfall, as he was arrested for selling a valuable piece of Dutch cultural property to the Nazis. Rather than face treason charges, van Meegeren decided to admit the work was fake. He became known as “the man who swindled Göring” as well as the world’s greatest art forger. Van Meegeren died a few weeks into his one-year prison sentence in 1947.
Elmyr de Hory
Hungarian painter Elmyr de Hory started life as a forger in Paris after World War II ended. The idea came to him after selling a pen-and-ink drawing to a British woman who mistakenly believed it to be an original Picasso. He went on to sell 1,000 paintings to galleries across the world, including further forged Picassos, as well as counterfeit works purported to be by Degas, Matisse and Modigliani. Though de Hory did attempt to kickstart his own art career, the money was nothing compared to the huge profits he had become accustomed to from his fakes.
Eventually galleries grew suspicious of him and, in time, art dealers and curators began realising his works were forgeries. Having eluded the police for some time, de Hory returned to his Ibiza home and was sent to prison for two months in 1968. This was for a number of crimes, including homosexuality, which was still illegal at the time. However, his forgery couldn’t be proved, as there was no proof of whether any of his counterfeits were created on Spanish soil. After leaving prison, de Hory was seen as a celebrity, even appearing in the Orson Welles documentary F For Fake. However, he died by suicide in 1976 shortly after the Spanish government agreed to extradite him to France to stand trial for fraud. Many of de Hory’s works are still in circulation today.
Wolfgang Beltracchi started painting in the styles of renowned artists as a teenager, learning from his father who was an art restorer and church muralist. However, rather than creating copies of existing pieces, the German painter started making new works and selling them at flea markets. During the 1970s and 80s, Beltracchi turned his attention to the French Modernists and German Expressionists, as it was easier to find the materials these artists would have used. His paintings in the style of Campendonk would become his speciality, and he even managed to fool leading scholar Andrea Firmenich, who featured some of Beltracchi’s paintings in the Campendonk catalogue raisonné he was compiling.
Many of his works sold for extremely high prices at auction, like his Campendonk painting Landscape with Horses which actor Steve Martin paid $860,000 for in 2004. He also sold a piece called The Forest (2) — painted in the style of Ernst — to a Parisian art gallery for roughly $7 million. Beltracchi was found out in 2008, after some of his Campendonks were tested by a forensic specialist, revealing pigments that were not in use during the times attributed to the works. He was sentenced to six years in prison but secured an early release, agreeing to paint only under his own name from then on.