Jan 18, 2011
To trick the art world has been the primary motivation of nearly all of history’s known forgers. The financial gains aside, forgers often seek to fool the art community as revenge for having dismissed their own, original creations. And the art community, its scholars, collectors, curators, and salesmen, have proven themselves a forger’s best ally.
The dream of the art historian is to find a lost masterpiece. This ravenous hunger is a treasure hunt for grown-up intellectuals, with all the accompanying adrenaline and enthusiasm. The phenomenon that plagues and pleasures the art community is collective wishful thinking. The spark of hope that one is on the trail of a lost artwork produces a momentum such that contradictory clues may be ignored, and incongruous details overlooked. Examined from another perspective, it is in no one’s interest to find a possible great discovery to be a fake.
Before money enters into it, the only beneficiary in disproving the “discovery” is an abstract sense of truth. Something that may or may not be real is determined not to be real. But what if it is deemed an original? Everyone benefits. The owner of the object now possesses a great treasure, to keep or sell for huge profit. The seller, be it an auction house, gallery owner, or other middle man, gains his commission. The new buyer, be it a museum or private collector, gains a rare trophy. Scholars are privvy to a new object to study, adding to their body of extant works and the knowledge amassed from them. The media can report on a great story, that there are hidden treasures among us, there for anyone to find. The collective wishful thinking of the art world unconsciously conspires to affirm the authenticity of newly-discovered works.
This is particularly the case when a museum is handed a gift. Museums rely on gifts to fill their walls—most of the Baroque art at London’s National Gallery, for instance, is owned by Sir Dennis Mahon, and the works are displayed on loan thanks to his beneficence. The term “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” takes on a new meaning. It would shatter the delicate reliance museums have on donors and supporters if they were to look too closely and, heaven forbid, discover something wrong with the gift offered to you.
Most known art forgers have turned to forgery for psychological, rather than financial reasons. The finances are inevitably secondary. It is generally a sense that one’s own original art was rejected as poor by some member of the art community (be it a teacher, a school, a gallery, a critic). The forger decides to “show up” the art world as a whole, projecting his sense that he has been wronged onto the collective art world. Therefore a sort of passive-aggressive revenge is the primary motivator. Such was the case for a gallery of famous forgers, from Shaun Greenhalgh to John Myatt, from Elmyr de Hory to Eric Hebborn. Money comes later, when the forger (and almost inevitably an accomplice who goads the forger forward, as John Drewe did for John Myatt) realizes that in addition to revenge, he can pocket some money as well.
Such is the case with Mark Landis, aka Father Arthur Scott aka Steven Gardiner. But the money did not enter into the equation for him, it seems. He enjoyed being catered to by the art world, and knowing that he had fooled them, that his own works were being displayed and lauded as Impressionist originals.
By creating a work of your own which exhibits your artistic skill to such an extent that it is mistaken for the work of an acknowledged master, the revenge is two-fold. First, it demonstrates that the forger’s ability level is comparable to that of the famous master whose work has been forged. Second, it undermines the so-called “experts” who dismissed the forger’s original work in the first place. Of course it undermines the experts privately—until the forgery is revealed, in which case even the capture of the forger can underscore the forger’s point and make him feel a victor. For when the forger is caught and his forgeries come to light, the experts he was out to dupe are shown publically to have been fooled.
Forgers rarely go to prison for long—a year or two is fairly standard. Many become celebrities upon their release, like John Myatt whose life story is meant to be made into a film starring George Clooney.
Art forgery, even when you're caught, seems to pay.