The skill that goes into a masterwork, in conjunction with the time and emotion it takes to produce an exquisite artistic asset is something that has been valued throughout time. But is an artistic asset still worth appreciating when it’s a copy, even if it’s made by one of the greatest art forgers of all time?
Han Van Meegeren
A man who started out as a legitimate artist with a passion for the Dutch Golden Age period and became one of the greatest art forgers in the world.
£3.7 million worth of replica Vermeer paintings were forged by Han Van Meegeren. One of these forgeries was so exceptional that it even fooled one of the most cunning minds in the Nazi party, Hermann Goring. The genius of this forgery was not just in the skill required to perfect it, but in the idea for the painting itself. This was a painting that Han Van Meegeren did not copy from an existing great work of art, instead he fabricated a new one entirely using nothing but his creativity, some interesting chemicals, his ability to mimic certain aspects of Vermeer’s artistic style and a pallet of paint.
The painting was entitled The Supper at Emmaus and was created using a technique that took Meegeren 6 years to perfect. It came to be verified by Dr. Abraham Bredius as a Vermeer original and purchased for 520,000 guilder (£3.7 million today) by the Rembrandt Society. The painting was one born from Meegeren’s desire to shun art critics who once said his original style of painting was but an imitation of that of the Dutch Master’s. His original plan was to announce the painting as a forgery at its exhibition, but instead he began working on his next master forgery and putting the money it earned him into a property empire, consisting of 52 houses and 15 country homes.
After the Second World War, the forged painting that was sold to Hermann Goering was retrieved by Allied forces from the salt mine in which Goering had hidden many great works of art. The trail that the Nazi records left was traced by members of the allied forces in the attempt to return the painting to its rightful owner. When they arrived at the front door of the great forger Han Van Meegeren in Holland they had unknowingly succeeded in their quest. They questioned him and when he refused to disclose where he sourced the painting they arrested him as an assumed Nazi collaborator and on the charge of treason. Facing a lengthy prison sentence, it was 3 days he pondered on his situation in a prison cell before announcing “The painting in Göring’s hands is not, as you assume, a Vermeer of Delft, but a Van Meegeren! I painted the picture!” (1). A year later after a trial and a demonstration of how he created the forgery, he was charged with forgery and fraud and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment by the regional court of Amsterdam. 14 days later the great forger suffered a heart attack where he went to hospital and had another heart attack the next month. This heart attack claimed his life and his story ended at the age of 58, but his legacy as a cunning trickster lived on.
Elmyr de Hory
This man sold over 1000 forged paintings, some of which are said to still be in circulation to this day.
His forgeries ranged from Picasso to Matisse, which he denied ever signing with the artist’s names. Painting in the style of another artist does not constitute as a crime, however, signing with the signature of another artist does (2). Much of the money that his forgeries generated in his lifetime was kept from him by Fernand Legros, Elmyr’s primary art dealer, but Elmyr lead a well-traveled life journeying across Europe, America and Australia regardless.
After his art dealer was caught and arrested at Elmyr’s home in Ibiza, it was not long before Elmyr tired of his self-induced exile which was necessary for him to avoid prosecution. He too returned to his home in Ibiza to face the music. After being charged for homosexuality and consorting with criminals in a Spanish court, he was sentenced to two months in prison and then banished from Spain. Elmyr was never accused in court of forgery due to a lack of evidence which could prove he had produced forgeries on Spanish soil.
The artist supposedly took his own life after taking an over dose of sleeping pills so to escape being extradited to France, who had been vying with Spain for custody of him in the early 70s on the charge of fraud. The painter’s forgeries became so popular after his suicide in 1976 that they entered the art market as desirable pieces of artwork in their own right. His forgeries are said to be within the price range of £10,000 (3).
Wolfgang Beltracchi is someone that has supposedly produced hundreds of famous art forgeries, imitating over 50 different artists (4).
He claims that he can forge any of the great masters works (5). He currently resides in an open prison with his wife, one of his two accomplices, who are both allowed to leave so to work in their friend’s photo studio. He had houses across Europe and a yacht which he named Vodoo child, all of which he had to give back when he was eventually caught in 2010.
One of the greatest art forgeries of all time was the most expensive of his replica’s Rotes Bild Mit Pferden (Red picture with horses) by Hendrick Campendonk which sold for 3 million euros. His greatest work was also his undoing, as upon examination it was revealed that the painting contained titanium white, a paint that was not available to the original artist in the year of 1914. His forgeries, like that of Han Van Meeregen and Elmyrs de Hory, are now sought after works in their own right, which he still produces to this day. Beltracchi is another forger, similar to Meegeren, to claim that part of his motivation for creating and selling his forgeries as other artists work was to show a mirror to the art world and the methods of categorisation and critiques that art would undergo under the eyes of experts (5).
Michelangelo Buonarotti, the great Italian master, who masterminded the artistic marvel painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, supposedly started his sculpting career passing off a marble sculpture Sleeping Eros as an ancient Roman statue. He buried the statue after damaging it in his art dealer’s garden in order to showcase it as an ancient discovery (6).
The Greatest Art Forgers in History… but who’s the best?
If we were to assess who the greatest art forger of all time was it would not be hard to argue that it is in fact Wolfgang Beltracchi. Not only has he the ability to imitate over 50 different artists styles, he also has made a legitimate career out of a not so legitimate skill. The master forgeries created by some of the greatest art forgers to have lived have in themselves have now become assets worth acquiring with an intrinsic value all of their own.
Who do you believe to be the greatest art forger ever?