A Brief History of Art Forgery—From Michelangelo to Knoedler & Company

Brought down by accusations that it was selling forgeries, the Knoedler & Company gallery in New York was shuttered in 2011, stunning the art world.  The once-esteemed American gallery, founded in 1846, sold approximately 40 forged paintings supplied by art dealer Glafira Rosales, who claimed to have access to never-before-seen works owned by an anonymous collector.  That story unraveled, and it was revealed that Rosales was actually commissioning paintings from a struggling Chinese immigrant named Pei-Shen Qian who’d taken classes at the Art Students League of New York. Rosales was paying him thousands of dollars, while the gallery charged millions for the paintings. Five years on, the scandal is still not entirely settled, and the art world is anxiously awaiting news concerning two lawsuits against the gallery and its associates currently being fought in the Southern District of New York.    Thanks to the Knoedler gallery scandal and the skyrocketing prices of art, the issue of art authentication is garnering a great deal of attention. But forgery has a long and fascinating history, spanning from the Renaissance to today.

Notorius Salvador Dali Art Forgers

Michelangelo

The Renaissance ushered in the rise of Humanism, a movement that emphasized individuality and the importance of earthly, rather than divine, matters. During this time, it became more common for artists to identify their works, as buyers desired authentic pieces by recognized artists. The resulting concept of individual genius and talent is perhaps best embodied by the Italian sculptor and artist Michelangelo. Ironically, however, Michelangelo himself created forgeries. In 1496, he sculpted a sleeping cupid and then buried it to make it appear older. Michelangelo sold the sculpture to a cardinal, who eventually discovered that it was artificially aged. The cardinal demanded a refund from the dealer who sold him the piece but allowed Michelangelo to keep his portion of the proceeds because he was so impressed with the work. The incident added to Michelangelo’s fame, and was praised as a “triumph over antiquity.” (The Renaissance master also had a proclivity for copying other artists’ drawings, keeping originals and returning copies in their place.)

Han van Meegeren

The fascination with a forger doubles when their work has duped Nazi agents. Han van Meegeren, a popular painter in the Netherlands who was criticized for being derivative, set out to prove his talents by forging famous artists. He planned to wait until his paintings attracted critical acclaim, and then he would reveal their true origins, exacting revenge on those who had doubted his talents. Once he achieved financial success from his forgeries, however, the temptation was too great and he continued his criminal activities—activities that went unnoticed even as his work grew sloppy due to alcoholism and a morphine addiction. Eventually one of his  Vermeer forgeries made its way into the collection of Hermann Göring, a central member of the Nazi high command. When World War II ended with German defeat, van Meegeren was arrested in his home country for selling Dutch cultural property to the Nazis, an act of treason punishable by death. Confronted with this punishment, van Meegeren confessed. In November 1947, after a highly publicized trial, he was convicted of falsification and fraud charges and was sentenced to one year in prison. (He never served his time, dying before his incarceration.) In 1947, a newspaper poll found van Meegeren to be the second most popular man in the Netherlands, after the prime minister.

Elmyr de Hory

Elmyr de Hory inspired Orson Welles’s F is for Fake (1974). Facts about de Hory’s life are shrouded in mystery: born in 1906 as Elemér Albert Hoffmann, he used a pseudonym and created an alternate personal history, claiming that his father was a wealthy diplomat. After escaping a Berlin prison hospital during World War II, de Hory sold art by claiming that his forgeries were from a Hungarian family estate. He successfully mimicked the style of many artists to the point that his forgeries were featured in several art books. But over time he attracted the attention of FBI and Interpol. Eventually, de Hory committed suicide while under investigation for fraud in 1976.

Genius or Insane?

John Drewe

Rather than rely solely on the skill of a forger, in the 1980s, John Drewe cooked up a scheme that ingeniously involved creating fake provenance information. In 1986, John Myatt, a struggling painter, placed an advertisement in the British satirical biweekly Private Eye offering his services. Drewe (then posing as a nuclear physicist) saw the advertisement and commissioned works by Myatt for his own personal use before convincing Myatt to paint forgeries. Drewe sold the forgeries to dealers, placed them in auction houses and galleries, and even attempted to donate them to museum collections. He falsely aged works with vacuum dust, varnish, and rusted picture frames.  But Drew’s deception went beyond the canvas and included engineering fake histories for the works by forging certificates of authenticity, invoices, and documents from what he purported were previous owners. Drewe infiltrated archives by introducing false records, replacing old records with new pages. Although clever enough to fool some art market professionals, a number of connoisseurs raised questions about the authenticity of the works. After Drewe left his long-term live-in girlfriend—Bat-Sheva Goudsmid, an Israeli immigrant and children’s eye specialist who once caught him smearing dirt on a “Giacometti” in the backyard—she reported her ex to the police and to the Tate. For his part in the forgery scheme, Myatt received a shortened jail term for cooperating with law enforcement agents, and he gained fame for his high-quality paintings, partly due to his collaboration with Drewe.

Wolfgang Beltracchi

Perhaps the most financially “successful” forger, Wolfgang Beltracchi, was discovered in 2010 after 40 years of forging paintings by the likes of Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk, Max Pechstein, and Fernand Léger earned him many millions. Beltracchi was sentenced to six years in prison, but was released in January 2015 just over three years after being convicted. He claims to be one of the most “exhibited painters in the world,” and his forgeries have even appeared on the cover of a Christie’s auction catalogue. Shockingly, Beltracchi stated that his motives come from fulfilling the desire of the forged artist: “In my thoughts, I created an original work, an unpainted painting by the artists of the past.” And since his release, he has gone on to create many more paintings under his own name, “inspired” by the artists he used to outright fake, which have reportedly begun earning him seven-figure sums once again.

Eric Hebborn

Like van Meegeren, Eric Hebborn identified revenge against the establishment as an impetus to turn to forgery. Hebborn began his career working for a restorer. However, the British artist ultimately began forging new works from old materials, even moving to Italy and opening a gallery through which to sell his creations. When his deception was discovered, Hebborn cashed in on his fame as a skilled con artist. His memoir, Drawn to Trouble, was a clear assault on the art world, discussing how he deceived art experts who were willing to accept forgeries for the sake of economic profit. (He went on to author two other books, and was featured in a TV documentary.) In 1996, Hebborn was murdered, his body found on a street in Rome, his skull broken. His death remains an unsolved crime.

21st Century Dali Art Forgers

Antoni Pitxot

In an excerpt from author Noah Charney’s recent Phaidon book The Art of Forgery, the art crimes historian recounts the strange tale of Salvador Dalí and his friend, assistant, and potential forger Antoni Pitxot, raising vital questions about the nature of authenticity and deceit in the realm of art.     Dalí produced a staggering number of works in many media. The number of projects to which he attached his name increased with his age—and his desire for more and more money—but his lifestyle and declining mental competence seemed at odds with his prodigious output.     

 

The life of Antoni Pitxot (born 1934) is inseparable from that of his great friend Dalí. Both he and Dalí were born in Figueres in Catalonia, Pitxot a generation after Dalí, and both owned property in Cadaques. Their families were close friends and Dalí was the earliest supporter of the young Pitxot’s work. Pitxot was an award-winning artist himself whose work often features surreal allegories of memory, as does Dalí’s. Pitxot would go on to co-design the Dalí Museum, which was built in 1968, and became the museum’s director after Dalí’s death.      


Pitxot received the Gold Medal of Merit in Fine Arts from the King of Spain in 2004 for work produced under his own name. However, a conspiracy theory begins in 1966, when Pitxot moved in to Dalí’s villa full-time. Their close personal, artistic and geographical relationship led some individuals familiar with Dalí to believe that Pitxot began painting as Dalí around the same time, sanctioned by Dalí as his own artistic powers started to wane.     The main objection to such an interpretation is the question of deceit—which in itself may be a case of pride. Perhaps Dalí was reluctant to admit that he was painting less and assigning his projects to his assistant, preferring to maintain the illusion of continued prolificacy even as his skills deteriorated.     The primary issue with the speculation that Antoni Pitxot is responsible for one or more artworks in The LOST DALI Collection is that the dates don’t correlate in any meaningful manner. Pitxot was born in 1934. It is alleged he began painting for Dalí in the 1960’s. Since the majority of The LOST DALI Collection falls within the date range 1920-1955, it is impossible for Antoni Pitxot to have created the original artworks signed in the name of Salvador Dalí.

Ken Perenyi

Living forger Ken Perenyi has recently attracted attention, following the 2013 publication of his memoir, Caveat Emptor. Perenyi is regard as one of the most skillful forgers of 18th- and 19th-century British and American paintings. And, like other criminals, he grew dependent on the illegal revenue. Eventually the FBI began investigating his work, going so far as to perform chemical analysis on pieces he sold through auction houses. However, the agency mysteriously closed the investigation five years later. Perenyi started a “new business model” in which he openly sold fake paintings as reproductions. Perenyi now has a successful business selling these copies (though he must clearly advise customers that they are purchasing reproductions). Similar to Beltracchi, Perenyi posits that he is fulfilling the wishes of the artists, having boasted, “I’m convinced that if these artists were alive today, they would thank me. I’m somebody that understands and appreciates their work.”  The idea that skilled art forgers are continuing the legacy of past masters is problematic. Artistic geniuses are venerated for their innovation and power to present the visual world in a different way, not their ability to mimic—forgers do not offer innovation and originality to the art world. In addition, art forgery not only defrauds buyers and leads to financial losses for both individuals and institutions, but it also damages our understanding of art history by misattributing works to well-known artists. Fakes and forgeries deceive art scholarship and dilute an artist’s body of work. And although their lives may be fascinating, art forgers are not white knights gallantly providing us with lost masterpieces.

Tony Tetro

Anthony Gene Tetro (born 1950), known as Tony Tetro, is an art forger known for his perfectionism in copies of artwork produced in the 1970s and 1980s. Tetro never had formal art lessons, but learned from books, by painting and experimentation. Over three decades, Tetro forged works by Rembrandt, Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí and Norman Rockwell and others. 


Tetro's paintings and lithographs, known for their perfectionism, were sold by art dealers and auction houses as legitimate works and hang in museums, galleries around the world. He was caught after Hiro Yamagata found a forgery of his own work for sale in a gallery. Tetro was called a genius and "one of the two major [art] forgers in the United States."  Tetro was born in Fulton, Oswego County, New York, one of four children to Beatrice and James Tetro, a house painter. As a young girl, Tetro's mother once watched Amelia Earhart land her plane in their family's pasture. His father developed a special process for coating water towers.   Tetro was an altar boy. His first trouble from his art came while at parochial school in Fulton, where he drew a picture of one of the nuns as a Vargas girl, but with a "pruney face" and wearing a habit. The nun hit him and took him to the priest.  His forgeries were caught in late 1988 after Hiro Yamagata found a forgery of his work for sale in a Beverly Hills gallery. Police found 250 forgeries during a search of Tetro's home in April 1989 and he was accused of conspiring with art dealer Mark Henry Sawicki to defraud four other art dealers by selling them forgeries. Gary Helton, an investigator for the district attorney's office, called Tetro "one of the two major [art] forgers in the United States."   


Tetro was arrested and tried in Los Angeles in 1989. He was charged with 44 counts of felony forgery and one count of conspiracy. The costs of his defense forced him to liquidate his assets and ruined him financially. His lawyer was paid in cash until Tetro, out of funds, applied for and was granted a public defender.  Tetro sought to portray himself not as an art forger, but as an "emulator" who copied works, but did not intend to sell them as originals. He blamed art dealers for the fraud and said they commissioned him to create copies of paintings. His first trial ended in mistrial when jurors were deadlocked after 17 hours of deliberating, giving up after the third ballot. In order to convict, jurors had to be convinced of Tetro's intent to commit fraud. The district attorney decided to retry the case. With no more cash or assets to pay for a defense, in February 1993, Tetro pleaded nolo contendere to six counts of forgery, one count of conspiracy and one count of attempted theft. Part of his sentence included 200 hours of community service in which he was ordered to paint a mural on a public building. He was also sentenced to six months in a work release program, where he painted prototypes for traffic safety murals, and to five years' probation. He was released from jail in 1994.