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The Hands of a Forger: The Art World’s Greatest Fakers

The world’s most beautiful and inspired paintings are hot commodities on the international market. However, unscrupulous people waiting in the wings have learned to exploit this demand for their own gain. Over the years, frustrated portraitists and humble art restorers have lined their pockets by imitating great artists. Some have done it for the thrill of being mistaken for a master, while others needed ready cash to prop up their opulent lifestyles.

1. Han van Meegeren
As a teenager in the Netherlands, Han van Meegeren fell in love with the works of Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer. He became well-versed at imitating Vermeer’s style, as well as techniques by other similar artists like Frans Hals and Pieter de Hooch. Although he found success painting portraits for clients, art critics were less complimentary. They declared his style old-fashioned and unoriginal. As a result, van Meegeren turned to forgery in the 1930s, amassing an enormous fortune from fake Vermeers. His most famous work was The Supper at Emmaus, a supposed lost Vermeer that he sold in 1938 for $280,000. However, the advent of World War II was van Meegeren’s downfall. He made the mistake of selling a Vermeer forgery to Nazi leader Hermann Göring, who displayed the work openly alongside stolen artwork and bragged about its value to guests. After the defeat of Germany, the Dutch authorities arrested van Meegeren for collaborating with Nazis and selling the country’s valuable cultural history to the invaders. Facing the death penalty, van Meegeren finally came clean and admitted that he had forged the painting. Upon careful examination, art experts identified van Meegeren’s works as forgeries, but some experts insisted for years that van Meegeren’s fake Vermeers were genuine. Despite his conviction for forgery, the Dutch public viewed van Meegeren as a national hero for fooling Göring. In a twist of fate, van Meegeren’s original paintings have increased in value over the years, making them an attractive subject for forgers.

2. Zhang Daqian
The Chinese painter was born into an impoverished family in Sichuan province. He began painting at a young age and soon became an expert in traditional Chinese painting techniques, using a silk scroll instead of a canvas for his work. He became famous for his traditional-style paintings in the 1930s after moving to Beijing. However, in addition to his well-known works, Zhang was secretly forging paintings by great Chinese artists like 10th-century landscape artist Guan Tong. Due to the precision of his forgeries, Zhang fooled art experts and museums around the world. Even the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston purchased a phony silk scroll in 1957, believing it to be a 10th-century masterpiece. He painted many of his forgeries in different styles to make it harder to detect their provenance. Zhang made a large fortune from both his original and forged works. Over his long career, he earned an estimated $11 million from selling his art. After Zhang died in 1983, art historians realized that he had forged several of the historical paintings found in his collection. He left an enormous assortment of art, and experts today are still divided on the provenance of the period paintings formerly in his possession. Despite his fraudulent ways, Zhang’s originals are still considered some of the most desirable paintings in China. In 2016, his Peach Blossom Spring sold for $34.7 million in Hong Kong.

3. James Tetro
A furniture salesman from upstate New York, Tetro was an unlikely candidate for the title of most notorious forger in the United States. He was entirely self-taught as a painter, learning his craft from reading art books and visiting museums. He launched a legitimate business painting art reproductions, but secretly began forging works by famous artists like Rembrandt and Chagall. To prevent art experts from detecting his forgeries, Tetro traveled the globe, carefully selecting materials that the painters actually would have used. Tetro worked in a wide variety of styles, aping Impressionists like Monet and Renoir, as well as Cubists like Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Tetro amassed a large fortune from his forgeries and became well known for his lavish parties in the upper circle of Los Angeles society. Tetro’s career came to a screeching halt when he sold a fake watercolor, ostensibly by local artist Hiro Yamagata, to a Beverly Hills gallery. Yamagata spotted the fake and immediately alerted police, and the forgery was traced back to Tetro. Authorities raided his home, discovering hundreds of fakes. Although Tetro never served any jail time for his fraudulent activities, his reputation was ruined, and the court ordered him to sign every work of art that he produced. Art experts speculate that many of Tetro’s forgeries still hang undetected in museums all over the United States.

4. Mark Landis
The Southern painter is unusual among forgers because he never profited monetarily from his fakes. Landis developed a love of fine art as a child when he visited museums and copied the masterpieces at home. He also struggled with mental illness and found solace in painting fakes by famous artists. Landis did not try to sell his paintings, but donated them to small museums across the United States. The museums often did not have the resources to authenticate the works and were grateful for the generous donations. After more than 20 years of using different names to donate fakes to various museums across the US, Landis was finally caught when he donated similar paintings to several different museums. Museum employees became suspicious and soon discovered that more than five dozen museums had been duped into displaying Landis’ forged paintings. Despite his fraudulent activities, authorities were not able to charge Landis with a crime. Since he did not accept payment and did not deduct the donations from his taxes, he technically was not committing any crime. Landis has since become a well-known eccentric figure in the art community and even launched an exhibition of his forgeries in 2012.

5. Elmyr de Hory
A Hungarian painter who found little success with his own creations, de Hory struck gold when he moved to Paris and began copying Picasso drawings. He later entered the American museum circuit, where he offloaded forgeries purportedly painted by Matisse and Renoir. He slipped up in 1955 when he offered three paintings to Harvard Art Museums. A suspicious curator noticed that the paintings looked very similar, although they were supposedly painted by different artists. She began investigating de Hory and alerted museums and galleries that a new forger was on the loose. With the help of Egyptian art dealer Fernand Legros, de Hory continued to sell his fakes across the US and Europe. Despite using a variety of false names, de Hory was not able to escape law enforcement forever. He was caught by Spanish police in 1968 and served two months in prison. He became famous after novelist Clifford Irving wrote a biography of his life. He was also the subject of F for Fake, a documentary film by Orson Welles and became an infamous figure in the art world. The notorious forger died in 1976, but his fakes are still popular with collectors. Many of his paintings have themselves been forged by more recent artists.

6. Eric Hebborn
A graduate of England’s prestigious Royal Academy of Arts, Hebborn entered into forgery accidentally when he began working as an art restorer. He soon realized that he could easily duplicate the styles of the great masters whose work he was restoring. Hebborn concentrated on forging drawings and paintings by famous artists like Andrea Schiavone, van Dyck and Rubens. His carefully crafted works fooled experts at Britain’s most prestigious auction houses and even convinced Sir John Pope-Hennessy, the Director of the British Museum. Hebborn’s crimes were discovered in 1978 when he carelessly used the same sheet of antique paper for multiple drawings that had allegedly been completed by two different artists. The drawings were revealed publicly as fakes, but art dealers were too afraid to accuse Hebborn directly. Since so many reputable art experts had authenticated his work and it was so similar to the styles of the original masters, they feared it would be difficult to prove forgery. Hebborn baldly admitted to his forgery in his 1991 autobiography, Drawn to Trouble. Despite this confession, he was never prosecuted. Over his lifetime, Hebborn claimed that he produced around 1,000 fake drawings, as well as various forged sculptures and paintings.

7. Wolfgang Beltracchi
The German painter was inaugurated into the art world at a young age. He learned how to paint from his father, an art restorer, and began forging paintings to pay for his living expenses. When approaching dealers, he claimed that his relatives had been enthusiastic art collectors and the forged works were from their collections. Beltracchi was fond of imitating works by painters like Johannes Molzahn and Max Ernst. Many of his forged paintings were authenticated by reputable art experts. Beltracchi made a miscalculation when he added aged stickers to the back of his forgeries. He hoped the name of a famous art dealer on the stickers would convince buyers that the paintings were old. However, an eagle-eyed art appraiser spotted one of his fake stickers and realized the work was a forgery. The German police began investigating Beltracchi and uncovered more than a dozen fake paintings that could be traced back to him. Beltracchi served three years in jail for forgery, but remained unapologetic, writing two books about his life and appearing in a 2014 documentary about his fakes. He claims that he has forged over 300 paintings, although police have only identified around 58.

8. Ken Perenyi
Ken Perenyi discovered he had a talent for art at an early age, but instead of painting original works, he preferred copying the style of 19th-century masters. Over his thirty-year career, he churned out at least 2,000 phony masterpieces in the styles of famous artists like Martin Johnson Heade and James E. Buttersworth. Perenyi painted fake pictures for years to support his lavish lifestyle, but eventually, he made a mistake. One of his girlfriends nabbed a painting and gave it to Bonhams auction house to sell. However, Bonhams realized that they had seen the exact same masterpiece for sale at Sotheby’s. They informed the FBI, who began investigating him. Instead of panicking, Perenyi patiently waited for the statute of limitations to expire. Despite the FBI’s scrutiny, they were never able to find sufficient evidence, and he eventually went on to openly detail his forgeries in a memoir and a documentary. To this day, he has never been charged with a crime.

Fraudulent painters have long taken the easy way to fortune by riding on the coattails of more famous artists. These master counterfeiters have fooled art lovers and expert appraisers alike by applying their talents to clever forgeries rather than original works. A few of these forgers even managed to find success under their own names. Some managed to evade detection, but they were all discovered in the end.