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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Infamous Art Forgery On Display At Springfield Museums

Property of Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Photo by Shannon Kolvitz
"Mark Landis (American, b. 1955), Untitled, date unknown, watercolor on paper, in the style of Paul Signac (French, 1863-1935).

This week, an exhibit opened at the Springfield Museums exploring some of the most infamous art forgery scandals of the century. It also delves into the minds of serial forgers. Called "Intent to Deceive," the exhibit places masterpieces by Picasso and Matisse alongside examples of fakes that fooled some of the world's most revered experts.

Many art forgers have been typecast in novels and films as cultural folk heroes, but as Colette Loll points out, they were also criminals who wreaked havoc on the art world.

“It has really struck a nerve on many levels,” Loll says. “It’s such an important issue because I think some people wrongly assume that forgery is a victimless crime when in fact there are really broad and serious implications of the crime of forgery. And I say ‘crime’ because it is a crime.”

Loll is the curator of the exhibit, and founding director of a Washington, DC-based group that investigates suspect artwork. She says the victims of art forgery are the artists whose work has been duplicated, and the buyers who, in some cases, paid millions for the fakes.

The first United States stop for Loll's exhibit is the D’Armour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield. Last week, the D’Armour staff were hanging the last of the artwork just before the exhibit opened. Museum curator Julia Courtney stopped at one particularly notorious forgery.

“So we’re standing in front of The Head of Christ, which is a major piece in the show,” she says. “It’s traveled from Rotterdam, and the forger took great pains to convince art experts that this was by Vermeer.”

As in Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch artist from the 17th century. Courtney says during the World War II era, forger Han Van Meegeren used an intricate technique to fool the experts.

“He actually found that if he added a substance called bakelight, which was a plastic, to the paint composition, once it was on the canvas, it crackled, and it gave that sort of old paint look,” she explains.

Courtney says Van Meegeren was one of the world's most prolific forgers. His deception wasn't only in his technique but in the lies he perpetuated about the art he created.

“He actually invented a time period in Vermeer’s career called 'the religious period,' where the artist never painted any work in that time period,” she says. “There was a lapse in the artist’s career, so the forger took advantage of that fact.”

Van Meegeren was caught, convicted but died before serving his sentence.

Not all forgeries are discovered. By Courtney's estimate, 40 percent of the art in the market today is fake. But exhibit curator Loll anticipates a shift in these numbers. When it comes to determining authenticity, she says, new forensic technology is challenging the art world's elite group of experts.

“So we have kind of the clash of titans, so to speak,” says Loll. “We have the old guard, which are these connoisseurs sitting on their throne, dictating, ‘Is it real,’ ‘Is it not real,’ and we have these incredible scientific methodologies that are evolving that can help us be more precise in our attribution.”

Two of the forgers in the Springfield exhibit are still alive. Mark Landis dressed as a Jesuit priest and donated his fakes to museums across the country. But while stories like Landis's make for compelling plot lines, Loll says that many fakers are - and were - nothing more than angry wannabes.

“What’s interesting is there’s a really common and reoccurring pattern with many of the men. It’s interesting they’re all men,” she says. “They have frustrated artistic ambitions, often chaotic personal lives, and an overall contempt for the art market and its experts.”

These famous fakes are on display at the Springfield Museums until the end of April.

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