The Case of the Charitable Forger

A forger is generally portrayed as a greedy figure. He has just enough technical skill to imitate a real artist’s creative genius, and then he capitalizes on the success of the original artist for his own financial gain.

Mark Landis presents a rather different figure. First of all, he often poses as a Jesuit Priest. Second, Landis doesn’t make any money from these artworks. “Unlike most forgers, he does not seem to be in it for the money, but for a kind of satisfaction at seeing his works accepted as authentic.”

His story is a bit like a twisted version of the Thomas Crown Affair, with none of its glamour. Landis forges works, typically by lesser-known artists, and then donates them to museums under fake names and elaborately concocted provenance. In one instance, Landis donated a fake Paul Signac work to the Memphis Brooks Museum. After seven years, word began to circulate about a phony art donor, and the truth of the work became known. Memphis Brooks later displayed the fake out of public interest. According to Helen Stoilas, a reporter for the Art Newspaper, the work was not totally without merit. “You can see his technical skill. The watercolors, especially the Signac, there’s a confidence in them.”

According to Stoilas, research has uncovered a history of what appear to be fraudulent gifts going back 20 years(read the Art Newspaper piece from 2010 here).

The issue now is what kind of legal action could be taken against Landis. The New York Times reports that Robert K. Wittman, a former FBI agent who ran the agency’s art-crime team, has been working informally on behalf of some of the museums. However, any duty to prevent fraud on the public, by exhibiting forgeries as authentic works, currently remains with the museums themselves.

Read the article at The New York Times

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