My Favorite Art Forger
on August 23, 2012
There's John Myatt, who pulled off what is considered the greatest art con of the twentieth century by painting and selling over two hundred "undiscovered" works by well-known dead artists. But the con isn't the best part. It turns out that after a short stint in jail, Myatt established a successful business selling his forgeries as forgeries at between one thousand and ten thousand dollars a pop. In 2005, he had a one-man show at the Air Gallery in London, appropriately called "Genuine Fakes", which had people lined up for blocks. I guess crime does pay.
And there's Ely Sakhai, a minor New York gallery owner, who made over three-million dollars buying up middle-market paintings—minor works by major artists that sell in the five-figure range—and hiring artists to forge them. He then turned around and sold both paintings as the original to double his profit. The fakes, along with the authentic certificates of authenticity, went to Japanese collectors; the real ones were sold through New York auction houses. He got away with this for years until, in May 2000, the unsuspecting owner of a phony Gauguin decided to sell his version through Sotheby's at the same time Ely consigned the original to Christie's. Poor, clever Ely Sakhai. Caught with nowhere to hide. And he had such a good thing going.
But by far my favorite is Han van Meegeren, a frustrated Dutch painter who spent six years in the 1930s formulating the chemical and technical processes needed to create a forgery which would hoodwink the dealers and critics who refused to recognize his own genius as a painter. He used toaster parts to create an oven to bake his canvases and was a stunning success. He made a fortune until one of his "Vermeers" was found among post-war Nazi loot, and he had to prove he'd forged it to avoid charges of treason for selling a Dutch national treasure to the enemy. While in jail, he painted his little fingers off in front of the vigilant eyes of reporters and court-appointed witnesses, saved his butt, but broke the hearts of museums and collectors all over the world when they discovered their de Hoochs, ter Borchs and Vermeers weren't worth the canvases they were painted on.