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4 of the World’s Most Notorious Art Forgers

It’s estimated that nearly 20% of all works of art in museums and collections around the world are fakes. 

Whatever the true number, even supposed art experts can’t often tell originals from forgeries, and with the demand for priceless works of art at all time highs, forgers and the phony products they pass off as the real thing probably aren’t going anywhere any time soon. 

Forged art has been around since the beginning of time, though these days savvy curators and restorers have a myriad of techniques at their disposal to determine whether or not their pieces are authentic. 

That said, they’re still duped with surprising regularity. 

Now let’s take a look at some of the world’s most notorious art forgers. 

Elmyr de Hory

Elmyr de Horry
Elmyr de Horry

Though renowned rogue and charlatan Elmyr de Hory was most likely born in Budapest, Hungary in April of 1905 or 1906, throughout his life assumed dozens of aliases, lied about his background, and made a small fortune selling world-class forgeries to unsuspecting art dealers, collectors and museum curators.

But like most nefarious endeavors, his deceit eventually caught up with him.   

At just 16 he began his art training at the Nagybánya artists’ colony, and just two years later transferred to Munich’s Akademie Heinmann art school where he studied classical painting. 

De Hory was a quick learner and eventually ended up studying at the Académie la Grande Chaumière in Paris in the late 1920s, where he realized with consternation that the types of paintings he created had fallen out of favor for more modern styles like Cubism and Expressionism. 

Spending the next decade as a starving artist, he was arrested multiple times for petty crimes committed to augment his meager income. 

At the outbreak of World War II de Hory returned to Hungary where be became embroiled in multiple scandals including homosexual trysts and a relationship with a suspected British spy that landed him in a series of prisons, including one for deviants and political dissidents in Transylvania.  

In Paris after the war he once again attempted to make an honest living, until he discovered that he had a knack for making forgeries. 

His first fake pen-and-ink Picasso sold in 1946, after which de Hory comforted himself in the knowledge that his customers “thought” they were getting the real thing – and for pennies on the dollar. 

In other words, in his mind he was providing a public service. 

Shortly thereafter he formed a partnership with a well-known European art dealer, and the two set off across the continent selling works of dubious origin, until it became evident that his associate had been bilking him out of most of the profits. 

Deciding to try his luck abroad where the art community wasn’t as astute, he headed for Rio de Janeiro in 1947 and picked up where he left off.

There he made a decent living painting landscapes, still-lifes and portraits, to which he signed names like Renoir and Henri Matisse. 

But though life was good, the confident forger set his sights on a bigger art market where the money flowed like wine and suckers were a dime a dozen – the United States. 

For more than a decade de Hory plied his wares in cities like Los Angeles, Miami and New York, but it wasn’t long before buyers and collectors became suspicious, and word spread that the gregarious Hungarian should be avoided at all cost. 

To keep up the charade from relative anonymity, he again relied on aliases and began selling his work by mail order. 

But in the ‘50s a number of high-profile transactions, including ones to Harvard University’s Fogg Museum and another to a Chicago art dealer named Joseph W. Faulkner, set off a bevvy of bells and whistles, and the great unraveling began.

In fact, things got so bad that for a short time he even lived in a dumpy apartment in LA’s Pershing square, where he survived by selling gaudy oil paintings of poodles and palm trees to second-rate interior decorators. 

Pershing Square

Meanwhile, the FBI was investigating de Hory, one federal lawsuit had been filed against him, and even French authorities and Interpol were after him. 

To evade extradition and prosecution, de Hory country hopped for nearly two decades, ending up in and being expelled from France, Switzerland, Germany, Mexico, Great Britain and others. 

His first suicid attempt was in New York in 1959 when he ingested a bottle of sleeping pills, but he was found by a friend, his stomach was pumped in the ambulance on the way to the ER, and he survived.  

Then in Spain nearly two decades later in 1976, with the proverbial noose tightening around his neck, he found out that the Spanish government had approved extradition to France, and this time when he took the sleeping pills he died en route to the hospital, apparently in the arms of his distraught lover. 

All told, it’s estimated that the combined value of de Hory’s forgeries exceeded 50 million USD when inflation is taken into account. 

Thomas Patrick Keating

Thomas Patrick Keating
Thomas Patrick Keating

Born in London in 1917, Thomas Patrick Keating purportedly faked more than 2,000 paintings by nearly 100 artists before dying in 1984, and it’s estimated that his profits exceeded 10 million USD.  

As a youngster Keating did odd jobs and worked as a house painter with his father to support his poor family. 

Enlisting as a Royal Navy boiler-stoker during World War II, afterward he was admitted to the University of London’s Goldsmiths College and later studied at the National Gallery, during which time he worked for a number of art restorers while continuing his own work, though he never found commercial success. 

But formal schooling wasn’t Keating’s cup of tea, and after dropping out he found work with a restorer of dubious ethics named Fred Roberts. 

In Roberts’ workshop Keating honed his skills as a forger, initially when challenged to recreate a work by English painter Frank Moss Bennet.  

Having succeeded, Keating proudly signed the painting with his own name, but unbeknownst to him, his employer changed it to F.M. Bennet and consigned the work to the West End gallery as an original. 

Over the next decade and a half Keating counterfeited works by numerous masters like Edgar Degas, and eventually opened an informal art school for local teenagers, which is where he met his future lover and partner in crime Jane Kelly, then just 16-years-old.   

Even as a young man, Keating saw the traditional gallery system as rotten and dominated largely by decadent and clueless bluebloods intent on getting rich at the expense of the artists who did the actual work. 

To get even, he set out to shake up the status quo by creating world-class forgeries, and like de Hory did, he saw his quest as a righteous one. 

But unlike other forgers, Keating left telltale clues in his works to thumb his nose at the establishment, and ironically, later on they would lend credence to his assertion that he’d never meant to pass his works off as originals. 

While tedious and time consuming, Keating’s works were full of subtlety and richness that fooled many so-called experts. 

Then in 1970, auctioneers became suspicious when more than a dozen Samuel Palmer watercolours burst onto the market, all of which depicted the same scene. 

A correspondent for the Times of London looked into the matter, and as a result the paintings were tested by a renowned specialist who concluded they were all fakes. 

Receiving multiple tips about the forger’s identity, the reporter drove to Keating’s house, and was surprisingly invited in for a tell-all chat that would rock the art establishment. 

Keating spent much of his time ranting about the plight of the working man and the socialist class struggle, but though he confessed to having made the paintings, he stated that money wasn’t the incentive, and that anyone who’d taken the time and effort to analyze his previous works would’ve been able to see that they weren’t originals. 

Though the correspondent’s article exposed Keating, he bore her no ill will, and until the end he refused to make a list of his works. 

In 1979 Keating and now ex-lover Jane Kelly were accused of fraud and arrested, but though Kelly pled guilty and promised to testify against her former teacher, Keating proclaimed his innocence. 

Largely due to insufficient evidence and his failing health, the charges against him were dropped, but Kelly ended up serving time. 

Later when his health improved, Keating wrote and published an autobiography and hosted a ]

television show in which he taught his painting techniques to interested viewers. 

A year before his death during a television interview Keating stated that he didn’t consider himself a particularly good painter. 

Now, the self-proclaimed “charming old rogue” is buried in the parish churchyard at St. Mary the Virgin at Dedham, a location often painted by one the masters he emulated, Sir Alfred Munnings.

Han van Meegeren

The third of five children, master forger Han van Meegeren was born in the Netherlands in 1889.

As a youngster Han was a budding artist, but his stern father forbade him to pursue his interests and often derided him for being weak and stupid. 

But in a twist of fate, while attending grade school he met teacher and painter Bartus Korteling who took him under his wing and encouraged him to follow his dreams.  

Inspired by Johannes Vermeer, Korteling showed van Meegeren how the Dutch master had mixed and applied his paints, but like many traditionalists, Korteling shunned modern art trends which he considered absurd and decadent. 

Forced to study architecture by his father, by 1913 Van Meegeren mustered the courage to drop out, after which he studied drawing and painting at The Hague where he won numerous awards, some as a first year student.  

After marrying in 1914 Van Meegeren completed the diploma examination at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague giving him the credentials needed to teach, and with the arrival of two daughters in quick succession he supplemented his salary by sketching and painting posters, landscapes and Christmas cards.

Van Meegeren first showed his own original works publicly in 1917.

As a result of glowing reviews he was accepted into an exclusive artist’s society, and began painting portraits for rich clients. 

Traveling all over Europe, he commanded stately commissions, but despite his success, after a divorce in 1923 he discovered that his once princely income was no longer sufficient to sustain the extravagant lifestyle to which he’d become accustomed. 

And big shocker, he turned to forgeries to fill the void. 

In 1928 he married actress and long time lover Johanna Theresia Oerlemans, but the market for his original works continued to dwindle, thanks largely to Cubism and other forms of Surrealism which were all the rage. 

And to add insult to injury, his work began drawing the ire of vocal Dutch critics, one of who claimed that he had nearly every artistic virtue in the book, except the one that mattered most – originality. 

In response, Van Meegeren published a number of aggressive rebuttals  strewn with racist, misogynistic and antisemitic epithets.

By the early ‘30s Van Meegeren had been passing off his works as originals for years, often buying historic canvases and raw materials lapis lazuli, white lead, and authentic indigo with which he mixed his own paints. 

He even crafted his own badger hair brushes and added formaldehyde to his paintings which caused the surface to crack, making them appear hundreds of years old. 

Sometimes he’d even bake them in the oven, and fill the cracks with dirt and soot to mimic centuries of aging. 

All told it took Van Meegeren nearly a decade to perfect his methods, though he continued to sell forged paintings while he did. 

But though the market was flooded with many of his relatively obscure forgeries, it was some of his most high-profile works, and even higher profile clients, one of whom was Nazi Air Marshall Hermann Göring, that set things into a downward spiral from which he’d never recover.  

Called Lady Reading Music, his crowning achievement was a painting he passed off as a Vermeer, using the classic yellows and ultramarine blues for which he was most well-known. 

Upon completion, he gave it to a friend and suggested he show it to art historians, none of which doubted its authenticity. 

The painting was subsequently purchased by The Rembrandt Society for more than 5 million USD in today’s money, and later donated to a museum in Rotterdam. 

It’s estimated that Van Meegeren’s forgeries earned him nearly 30 million USD today, and with his ill gotten proceeds he purchased more than 50 homes, jewelry, and ironically, original works of art by the Dutch masters. 

However after the war he was accused of collaboration for selling a fake Vermeer to Hermann Göring while the conflict still raged. 

The charges were ultimately dropped, but the court commissioned a panel of European experts to investigate the scope of his forgeries and their effect on the overall art market, after which new charges of fraud were added. 

Now prematurely aged and in failing health his fate seemed certain, but despite his wrongdoings Van Meegeren would never meet his jailers. 

In November of 1947 and then again in December, he suffered multiple heart attacks and was pronounced dead on December 30 at the age of 58. 

His funeral was attended by hundreds of friends, family members and art world figures.

He was later cremated, and in 1948 his ashes interred at a chapel near to his birthplace. 

Wolfgang Beltracchi

Born in Höxter, Germany on February 4, 1951, along with his wife Helene and a number of nefarious art world insiders, Wolfgang Beltracchi forged and sold hundreds of paintings around the world that may have netted as much as 100 million USD. 

Growing up Beltracchi’s father was a painter and art restorer, and the budding con artist apparently forged his first Picasso at just 14. 

Always a troublesome and free spirited child, he dabbled in drugs and was expelled from school at 17, though he eventually studied art in Aachen, Germany, after which he traveled extensively through Europe and North Africa. 

Beltracchi and a business associate opened a semi-legitimate art gallery in the 1980s, but before his forgery business took off he was commissioned to do a number of high-profile works, including an album cover for the world-famous German musical group Enigma

Like his disreputable counterparts, Beltracchi had the gifts of forgery and salesmanship, and also for embarrassing art world personalities including high-profile curators and collectors. 

Ironically, even after realizing they’d been duped, many chose not to press charges lest the publicity tarnish their reputations. 

However some sought legal remedy, which ultimately led to Beltracchi’s arrest, though not before he pulled off a few epic scams. 

In 2004 he sold a fake Max Ernst oil that came with a phony certificate of authenticity knowingly issued by a crooked associate, after which it was bought by an unsuspecting investment firm for more than 2 million USD. 

Nearly a decade later, one of Beltracchi’s forged Moïse Kisling paintings was slated to sell at an exclusive auction in Dubai, but when its provenance was questioned it was withdrawn, and many considered the brash German the prime suspect. 

However it wasn’t long before things went south, and the couple was arrested in 2010 along with a number of accomplices. 

During the trial in late 2011 Beltracchi admitted to forging dozens of paintings by, among others, well-known 19th century painters and graphic designers like Heinrich Campendonk and Max Ernst, one of the founders of the Dada movement.  

Just a month later, he received a six year jail term, while his wife Helene was sentenced to four. 

But despite their sordid deceptions and outright thefts, both Wolfgang and Helene were permitted to serve their terms in open prisons as long as they had outside employment, which they did at a friend’s photography studio. 

While on work release, Beltracchi undertook multiple projects with his employer, creating a number of mixed media works in which, not surprisingly considering his ego, he was the central element.

During their incarcerations, the couple began working on two books that would be published later, one an autobiography, and the other a collection of love letters written between them while still in prison. 

Helene was released in February 2013, while Wolfgang wouldn’t be freed until January of 2015. 

But though they’d nearly reached celebrity status in European art circles, the Beltracchis weren’t so famous elsewhere, until the CBS news program 60 Minutes did a feature story on them in the United States in February of 2015.

Now Wolfgang and Helene live and work as artists in Lucerne, Switzerland, and by most accounts, derive their income from legitimate sources. 

Credits

Art Forgery at the Louvre by cangaroojack is licensed under CC-BY

https://www.byuradio.org/

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