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Arts and Entertainment

Canton museum takes a closer look at forgery, fraud and the art of deception
"Intent to Deceive" opens Thursday, and runs through October 26. In all, it will be making five stops in the country

Web Editor
M.L. Schultze
Slideshow: John Myatt, one of the five forgers featured in "Intent to Deceive" is the only one with a story with a happy ending.
Courtesy of M.L. SCHULTZE
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The work of the five 20th century art forgers profiled in an exhibit opening this week at the Canton Museum of Art has infiltrated collections worldwide. And some of it is now worth more than the artists they mimicked. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze has this preview of the exhibition and the story of men, money and ego.

LISTEN: The art of deception

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Extended version: Intent to Deceive

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How Van Meegeren made his new paintings look old

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Art forgery is sexy stuff – at least in Hollywood renditions like the ‘Thomas Crown Affair.’ But with the exhibit “Intent to Deceive,” you also get suicide, murder, prison and mental illness.  

Max Barton, the spokesman for the Canton museum, says all of that seems to be built into the deception of the art world that’s about as old as the art world.

“It’s not a trade you get into if you want to be safe especially if you’re passing off work that someone’s paid millions of dollars for, and you’ve tricked them.”

And four of the five forgers profiled in the traveling exhibit have tricked many millions out of museums, private collectors and even the Nazis. The exception to that rule – we’ll talk about later.

A fateful day of revenge
But first – the personification of the rule.

Han Van Meegeren. Like many forgers, he started as an artist – albeit a failing one – in his own right.

Collette Loll, the curator of the traveling exhibition, reads from the profile beside one of his works.


Canton Museum of Art is marking the opening of
"Intent to Deceive" Wednesday night by auctioning off a copy of the museum's Winslow Homer "Girl Picking Clover" by Mark Landis -- one of the forgers featured in the exhibit.
Here's a copy of the original and Landis' work, done from a photograph.


“Driven to a state of anxiety and depression due to the all too meager appreciation of my work, I decided one fateful day to revenge myself on the art critics and experts by doing something the likes of which the world has never seen before.’

Van Meegeren adopted Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch master. He began filling in the gaps in Vermeer’s work, especially his religious period. Only it may not have been Vermeer’s religious period after all. Loll points to a soulful portrait of Christ done by Van Meegeren.

If the heavy-lidded eyes look familiar, Loll says there’s a reason.

“At that time, Van Meegeren could not have used models because he was working in secrecy and what he was doing was illegal. So he must have taken his visual clues from contemporary culture. And if you compare this image side-by-side, people tell me it looks like Marlena Dietrich.”

Or Greta Garbo.

Fame, fortune and a trial
Van Meegeren built a fortune, a villa in the south of France, and alcohol and drug addiction and an indiscriminate customer base, including the Third Reich. When the Nazis lost the war, the Dutch put Van Meegeren on trial as a collaborator who sold national treasures – a crime punishable by death.

His defense: It was all a fake.

“And of course nobody believed him because it was a perfect Vermeer. So part of his defense was they set up a canvas in the courtroom and to an absolutely rapt audience, he actually painted in the style of Vermeer. And so of course he became a celebrated folk hero.”

He got a one-year prison sentence, but died of a heart attack before he could serve it.

Others in the exhibit met premature deaths.

Eric Hebborn started his art life as a restorer, moved onto forger and lived --  for a while – to boast about it: Television appearances, writing what Loll calls “brag books” – and getting everybody confused by claiming authentic artworks were actually his forgeries.

His death came suddenly and Loll says no one seemed terribly interested in solving it.

“The coincidence of his being bludgeoned to death in an ally in Rome right after the Italian translation of his book came out is kind of interesting. ... We don’t know. We don’t know.

The Hungarian aristocrat
Elmyr de Hory killed himself as he was about to be extradited to Europe.

He left behind his trademark black cape – on display in the exhibit – and a social circle of movie stars. He also left a trail of forgeries including his birth certificate and the painting of two boys in sailor suits that was supposed to be de Hory and was supposed to be painted by that aristocrats’ artist: Philip de László. It turned out to be neither. But the social prop helped convince people he was the Hungarian aristocrat immigrant he pretended to be.

And even after the truth came out – that he was poor, Jewish and gay -– Loll says he had his champions.

“They were all in love with him. Charming, charming, charming. He was a charming rogue. He was a rogue none-the-less, but I don’tthink he believed that what he was doing was harmIng anybody.”

Some sweated the small stuff; others counted on paperwork
Loll says many of the forgers share traits – they’re narcissists and even sociopaths. But they vary in the styles of those they impersonate and their techniques.

Van Meegeren focused on the details to convince people his Vermeers were 300-year-old masterpieces – down to the fine cracks in each work he created with a resin used in 1940s costume jewelry.

“And he would melt the bake-a-light and combine it with his pigments. He would paint his canvas and then put it in the oven, and then he would role it on a tube and it would crackle.”

John Myatt had no patience with all that – even when he was re-creating Van Goghs.

“He didn’t even try to use the right materials. He used house paint and acrylics and vinyls and he would even go so far as to mix K-Y jelly into his vinyl paints so it would mimic the consistency of oils so he could paint with them better. So if anyone did even the most remote fundamental tests on his works, they would have found them to be inauthentic.”

On top of that, Loll says he wasn’t always very good.

“I mean, look at this Matisse. It’s absolutely horrible.”

But Myatt had a great advantage. “They had this incredibly convincing provenance.”

His partner, John Drew created the officials stamps and other records that made for a totally bogus paper trail – at times even slipping into archives to insert Myatt’s images into the records.

And “with the right provenance, anyone can convince themselves that even a great artist has a bad day.”

A happy ending and a troubled soul
Myatt and his partner ended up in prison. But his is a relatively happy story. Myatt was released after fourth months, is a born-again Christian and took the advice of one of the cops who arrested him: starting a business called Genuine Fakes, setting celebrities and others into famous classics such as “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.”

Mark Landis never went to prison, though he was prolific for decades. He distributed fakes to smaller – and very grateful -- museums around the country, often wearing a clerical collar and distributing blessings as well.

He never collected a dime for any of the art work, never took a tax write off, and Loll says it’s was all a manifestation of his mental illness.

“I believe his case needs to be handled with compassion rather than condemnation. These other guys they sure knew what they were doing. They got greedy and they really had that intent to deceive. Mark sits outside that norm because he never profited. What he did benefit from was the accolades that he was given when he donated these works.”

Are museums really ready to check?
The exhibit, Intent to Deceive” is coming to Canton thanks to International Arts & Artists – a nonprofit set up to distribute more significant exhibits to smaller museums around the country.

I asked Loll if any of them can be sure they have no frauds in their own collections. Loll says technology makes it easier to find out.

“There are many museums who will not go back and look at existing works and test for authenticity. But there have been fakes and mistakes and mis-attributions in collections since collections began.”

For Canton’s part, spokesman Max Barton says he would never say never.  He also says the exhibit raises an important question beyond that question.

“Is it any less art, just because it’s been shown that it’s a fake or a forgery?”

 Part of the exhibit that opens Thursday lets visitors decide. A wall of the real Charles Courtney Currans and others lines up with the works of the men who painted “in the style of” the masters.

How Van Meegeren made his new paintings look old
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