"The forger was too exacting, too superficial. Only the real artist has a false beginning."
- Dominic Smith
A forgery is a copy of an artwork or an original work made with an art style from a different time or place than its actual origin. Forgeries are often created to deceive, usually for financial gain. The art forgery topic is a divisive one that inspires wonder and anger in the art world. While galleries, dealers, and collectors certainly don't want fakes on their hands, it's hard not to be impressed by forgers who can mimic the great artists so believably. Even with all the available technology equipment designed to verify artworks, there are many convincing fakes still on display in museums. Back in 2018, after a renovation of its art museum dedicated to the late 19th-century landscape painter Étienne Terrus, the French village of Elne has discovered that 82 of the 140 paintings in its Terrus collection are fakes. "Maybe we were a little naive to not have looked closer at the origins of these paintings," commented Marthe-Marie Coderc, president of Friends of the Terrus Museum. But the reality is that even the world's largest museums have a monstrous number of fakes in their collections. The Independent, for example, estimates that 20% of the art hagging in public museums in the U.K. might be fake. (Independent, 2011)
Some of the most high-profile art forgers became "celebrities," with plenty of contemporary collectors still willing to consciously pay thousands for counterfeits. In this article, we examine the three most well-known forgers of all time.
HAN VAN MEEGEREN
Speaking about famous art forgers, we cannot start from anyone else than Han van Meegeren. He was a Dutch artist who turned to forgery after his peers criticized his work for its unoriginality. He decided to respond to that statement, proving his talent, by creating and selling an art piece claiming that Johannes Vermeer made it. He created a "new" Vermeer named Supper at Emmaus in 1937. Critics and experts widely admired the work. Indeed, Abraham Bredius, a famous art expert, called the painting "the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft." The original plan for Van Meegeren was to confess that he was the creator of the painting. However, he continued forging, creating six new Vermeers. From the sale of these works, he gained $60 million. Among his customers was the Nazi leader Hermann Göring. This eventually 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 that the work was fake. This story made him known as "the man who swindled Göring" and gave him the title of the world's greatest art forger. Van Meegeren died after some weeks into his one-year prison punishment in 1947.
Unknown photographer. (1986). Tom Keating with a model. [Photograph]. National Portrait Gallery. https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw165314/Tom-Keating-with-a-model
Tom Keating was a British painter best known for his forgeries of famous paintings. Keating claimed that he faked over 2,000 paintings by more than 100 different artists, including Rembrandt and Samuel Palmer. The British art forger revealed that his counterfeits were motivated by his socialist politics rather than financial gain, as is usual. In his book The Fake's Progress, he wrote 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 art market system, meant to fool the experts and break the industry.
After The Times published an article accusing him of his violations in 1970, Keating confessed his forgeries and was arrested in 1979 with his former lover Jane Kelly. Even though Keating was found guilty, he escaped prison after being severely injured in a motorcycle accident. The charges against him were dismissed, as he looked unlikely to survive. However, Keating's health did improve, and he lived until 1984. Today, Keating's works still sell for thousands of pounds. It is estimated that the reported counterfeits of his forgeries were selling on the market for between £5,000 and £10,000.
Unknown Photographer. Elmyr de Hory - The Story of the Most Famous Forger in Art History [Photograph]. Widewalls. https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/elmyr-de-hory-art-forger
ELMYR DE HORY
Elmyr de Hory started 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 was an original Picasso. He ended selling over 1,000 paintings to galleries across the world. The truth is that he attempted to start his own art career. But the money he gained selling his original works was nothing compared to the enormous profits he earned from his fakes. Eventually, galleries grew suspicious of him; art dealers and curators began realizing his works were forgeries. He escaped the police for some time, but in 1968 de Hory returned to his Ibiza house and was sent to prison for two months. This was for several crimes, including homosexuality, which was still illegal at the time. However, his forgery couldn't be proved, as there was no evidence that any of his counterfeits were created on Spanish soil. After leaving prison, de Hory was seen as a "celebrity." He even appeared in the Orson Welles documentary "F For Fake." Elmyr de Hory committed suicide in 1976 after the Spanish government agreed to extradite him to France to reach trial for fraud.
ArtNet. Tom Keating. http://www.artnet.com/artists/tom-keating/
Canvas Gallery. (2020, May 13). Five of the most famous art forgeries of all time. https://www.canvasgallery.com/blog/most-notorious-art-forgeries/
Fast Company. (2018, January 5). So Many museums are filled with fake paintings. https://www.fastcompany.com/90170415/so-many-museums-are-filled-with-fake-paintings
M. Glover. (2011, October 23). The big question: How many of the paintings in our public museums are fake? The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/the-big-question-how-many-of-the-paintings-in-our-public-museums-are-fakes-1946264.html
The Met. Forgery Figure. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/322540