Fooling people isn’t just the purview of magicians. As long as there are people willing to part with large sums of money, there will be thieves, con artists, and forgers willing to take advantage of them. Art forgeries in particular are a great way to make a ton of cash—as long as you don’t get caught. Frustrated painters and expert copycats pop up every now and then to rock the art world to its core, often making millions of dollars on illicit reproductions of great historical works before being found out. These are some of the most successful counterfeiters in art history.
Yep, that Michelangelo—the guy who sculpted the statue of David and painted the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was very likely also a con-man. It was common for artists during the Renaissance to copy the work of classic painters in order to practice their brush strokes, but some art historians believe that when Michelangelo was first starting out, he passed them off as classics and sold them to rich people for a huge profit.
Antiquities often sold for up to ten times more than modern works during his time, and Michelangelo simply didn’t make enough original art to account for his sizeable fortune at such a young age. Many historians believe that he would borrow old drawings, copy them, then use smoke to age them and sell them—even to the point that some believe there are “ancient” paintings hiding out in Greek or Roman museums that should actually be attributed to Michelangelo instead.
There’s even a story of Michelangelo trying to pull a fast one on an Italian cardinal by forging a sculpture of a cherub and burying it in a garden to make it look older than it was. Michelangelo was found out, but the cardinal was so impressed that he not only allowed Michelangelo to keep his cut for creating the fake, but even invited the budding artist to come to Rome to work on his art—a move that would end up jump-starting his career and making him into the artists whose work has become synonymous with the Renaissance.
There aren’t a lot of concrete facts that we know about Elmyr de Hory’s life, mostly because de Hory relied on deception to ply his trade. He only gave detailed accounts of his life in a biography called Fake, written by Clifford Irving—a writer who would go on to fabricate a biography of the reclusive Howard Hughes a few years later. Many of the details de Hory gives in Fake are either fudged or lacking sufficient evidence to back them up.
What we do know about de Hory is that he was an artist who had an incredible ability to copy other people’s paintings, often making more money on his forged Picassos than his own original works. He traveled around the globe, creating hundreds of forgeries and selling his work to dealers and wealthy people looking to increase their clout with some well-priced art. One mark was a Texas oil baron named Algur H. Meadows, who became incensed when he learned that 56 paintings—nearly his whole collection that he spent $2 million to acquire—were all phony.
De Hory grew tired of forging paintings and tried his hand at making his own again, but was never able to replicate the same kind of success he could with his fakes. In 1976, he learned that Spain was planning to extradite him to France on forgery charges and took his own life. His legacy lives on, however, in the fantastic documentary F for Fake, directed by cinematic master and known charlatan Orson Welles.
Henricus Antonius van Meegeren was born in 1889 to a middle-class family in Deventer, Netherlands. In his 20s, he tried to make an honest go of painting, attending an art academy and putting his work up for sale, a few of which became quite popular at the time. Critically, however, his paintings were seen as having “every virtue except originality”. In response to these reviews, he wrote a series of scathing takedowns in art journals (the 1920s equivalent of angrily replying to online comments), and then set out to prove them all wrong by creating the ultimate forgery.
He practiced by copying the works of several great Dutch painters, eventually landing on Johannes Vermeer as the subject of his greatest counterfeits. He painted The Supper at Emmaus in 1936, got it verified as an official Vermeer work, and sold it to the Rembrandt Society for the modern equivalent of nearly $5.5 million.
His biggest con, though, was fooling Nazi general Hermann Göring with a forgery of Christ with the Adulteress for the modern equivalent of $7 million. After World War 2, van Meegeren was discovered to be the source of the painting’s sale, and would have been tried for treason (as selling Dutch cultural history to the Nazis would have been considered collaboration and a war crime), but he copped to forging the painting and was sentenced to one year in prison instead. He never served out his term, though—as the trial was wrapping up, he suffered a series of heart attacks and died in 1947. All told, van Meegeren’s forgeries had earned him over $60 million in today’s currency. Not too shabby for an “unoriginal” painter.
Wolfgang Beltracchi, along with his wife Helene, are two of the most successful forgers of the 21st century, making millions off of illicitly sold paintings. Beltracchi (born Wolfgang Fischer, eventually taking his wife’s last name when they married in 1993) began forging paintings when he was 14, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that his forgeries began to make him some serious money. After marrying his wife, the two would operate as a team—Wolfgang creating the forgeries, and Helene selling them to art dealers and collectors.
Wolfgang’s claim to fame was essentially creating new paintings that would fit inside a classic artist’s oeuvre, mimicking style and even signature down to minute details. His work was so good that he even fooled painter Max Ernst’s widow with one of his forgeries. What eventually busted him was the paint; he’d used titanium white in a forgery of Heinrich Campendonk, a style of paint that wasn’t available in 1914, the year the painting was supposed to have been created. In 2011, Beltracchi was sentenced to six years in prison for forging 14 works that sold for $45 million, though he claims to have faked “about 50” different artists. His wife was similarly sentenced for being an accomplice and the two were ordered to pay back millions as compensation for their theft.
Lucky for the two of them, people have been just as interested in his own personal works as they had been for his forgeries. A gallery full of Beltracchi originals opened shortly after his release from prison and the pieces in it sold for millions.
Knoedler & Co. was one of the oldest art galleries in the United States, founded in 1846 in New York City, and host to some of the greatest classic and contemporary works in the world. Unfortunately, all of that fell apart after a scandal in the early 2000s obliterated its reputation and forced its closure.
In 1994, Ann Freedman became the gallery’s director, and met with a woman named Glafira Rosales—a woman who had no prior connections to the art world. Rosales was somehow able to obtain priceless abstract paintings from Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and many more. Her story was that they were obtained from a secretive and reclusive collector with homes in Switzerland and Mexico, but in actuality, the whole operation was a counterfeit ring run by, Rosales, her boyfriend Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, his brother Jesus, and a chinese forger named Pei-Shen Quian, who created the forgeries in his garage in Queens. Quian was paid a few thousand dollars for each fake; Rosales then sold them to the Knoedler Gallery for millions.
From 1994 up until 2008, the Knoedler Gallery sold or consigned 40 forged paintings, totalling over $80 million. Once details of the gallery’s numerous fakes came to light, the fallout grew exponentially. Knoedler was subpoenaed in 2009; Freedman stepped down shortly after. Freedman maintained that the works were real up until 2013, when Rosales admitted to the ring and pled guilty to a litany of charges. The Diaz brothers were arrested in Spain after fleeing the US; Quian fled to China and has so far avoided extradition. The Knoedler Gallery shut down in 2011, supposedly for financial reasons unrelated to the forgeries, but in 2016, details came to light that the gallery would not have turned a profit for the last 17 years of its existence if not for the forgeries.
Since the closure, numerous collectors have successfully sued the gallery or settled out of court over the sale of these counterfeit paintings. Considering we’re still hearing new information nearly a decade after allegations began, there’s a good chance we’ll continue to find out just how deep this conspiracy ran in the years to come.