What does your Netflix history look like?
If you’re like most red-blooded trash-humans, you’re not consuming great cinematic masterpieces or award-winning calls to action or other such dreary, nutritious fare on any regular basis. No, friend—you’re shoving carbohydrates down your gullet while you watch scam documentaries under an off-brand weighted blanket in the wee hours of a work night. Why? Because in a world that requires us to dot every I and cross each T lest the feds come calling, there’s nothing lovelier than witnessing a particularly bold Icarus buck the system for as long as humanly possible. Dirty money and shady deals run rampant in the art world, so it’s no surprise that some of the most over-the-top frauds have taken place under the less-than-watchful eyes of market gatekeepers.
Glamour! Intrigue! Truly nauseating amounts of money!
Let’s take a look back at a smattering of brasher-than-brash art scams, you know, for educational purposes.
ELMYR DE HORY
A relentlessly interesting if unscrupulous fellow, master forger Elmyr de Hory’s narrative is a little difficult to track, largely due to the fact that he lied about every aspect of his life to just about anyone listening (self-mythologization is vital to forgers, you see). We know that he was born in Budapest, we know that he spent time in a Transylvanian political prison during World War II, and we know that his lack of financial success in Paris pushed him into making copies of Picassos in the late ‘40s, ultimately selling them to galleries under a variety of barely-believable pretenses, identities, and pseudonyms.
By the mid-’50s, de Hory was an industry unto himself, selling pieces by mail order in the manner of Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir to a range of respected institutions all over the world, including the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. Most of his works earned upwards of $50 million at auction (when adjusted for inflation), and while he never experienced that level of wealth himself, his consistent sales and charming penchant for embezzlement secured him a comfortable existence in far-flung locales like Mexico City and Ibiza while he hid from Interpol in plain sight. Eventually, the Spanish government threatened to extradite him to France on a wide range of charges, and de Hory took his own life in response, although it has been suggested by Clifford Irving, author of the wildly unsubstantiated 1969 de Hory biography Fake, that he might very well have faked his death in order to escape the authorities. Whatever the case, de Hory lives in infamy as one of the messiest and most memorable forgers of all time.
THE ROTHKO LAWSUIT
Mark Rothko’s estate was thrown into chaos after his suicide in 1970, but it was his financial advisor, Bernard Reis, whose uncharacteristically evil designs sent the family into a tailspin. Prior to Rothko’s death, Reis and the legendary Abstract Expressionist artist had created a foundation to receive the majority of Rothko’s work in the event of his passing. Instead, Reis sold the paintings to Marlborough Gallery, Rothko’s representation, at incredibly reduced prices, splitting the profits from sales with gallery representatives in on the cut. Rothko’s children filed a lawsuit against Reis, Marlborough, and his estate executors over the deals, only to endure a grisly, decade-long court battle. In 1975, the defendants were finally found liable, removed from their executor positions, and then, along with Marlborough, were required to pay $9.2 million in damages, a laughably modest sum, even for the era.
In 2009, Ann Freedman resigned from her director position at legendary art dealership Knoedler & Co. amid a flurry of "fake painting” rumors. The fall-out had already begun years earlier with a slew of lawsuits, most settled out of court, but as the scope of the Knoedler empire’s crimes came to light, the FBI had little choice but to ask some questions. Ultimately, the gallery was accused of selling over $80 million in artworks that were later revealed to be fakes. At the center of this scandal was Long Island dealer Glafira Rosales, who brought copies of Pollocks and Rothkos by Chinese forger Pei-Shen Qian to the gallery to be flipped for astronomical prices. Rosales had already spent three months in jail back in 2013 on charges of tax evasion, money laundering, and wire fraud, but was re-introduced to the justice system after the FBI identified an even larger backlog of fraudulent paintings than previously expected, stretching all the way back to 1994. Flores avoided prison time, but was ultimately ordered to pay back all defrauded parties. Pei-Shen Qian avoided the heat by fleeing back to China—hopefully we haven’t heard the last from him.
Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi have the art world Bonnie and Clyde tie-in on lock, for sure. Wolfgang was indicted by a German court in 2011 for disseminating 14 fakes into the market that sold for upwards of $45 million at auction. The verdict fell squarely into the “too-little-too-late” category, as the case emerged a smooth thirty years into his tenure as a multi-millionaire forger (his downfall was a tiny amount of anachronistic titanium white in his copy of Heinrich Campendonk's Red Picture with Horses). The gag was streamlined; Wolfgang executed the fakes, right down to the chemical composition of the labels, and Helene sold them to small circle of dealers and auction houses, all of whom fell for the racket. Even Max Ernst’s widow publicly identified one of Wolfgang’s pieces as her late husband’s. Never one to let an accomplishment slide, Wolfgang has since laid claim to 300 other copies that allegedly occupy museums, galleries, and private collections all over the world. He left prison in 2015 to plenty of media fanfare and quickly secured gallery representation; he now pays the bills by painting under his own name, although he certainly seems available to wax poetic on his less savory antics at the drop of any and all hats.
THE UZBEK STATE ART MUSEUM HEIST
What does one get up to in Uzbekistan, you ask? Apparently, audacious art crimes involving in-house conspirators and over a decade of black market activity! In 2014, the chief curator of the Uzbek State Art Museum, Mifayz Usmanov, was sentenced to nine years in prison for his part in selling original artworks from the institution’s permanent collection right out from under its nose, systematically replacing the authenticated pieces with crudely actualized fakes over a period of fifteen years. Two restorers were also pinched in the process, but it was the miserably modest fees that Lorenzo di Credis, Victor Ufimstevs and Alexander Nikolaevichs fetched on the black market that stood out to the international media—some asked for little more than $100 a pop. Uzbekistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and museum employees are notoriously underpaid—a certain underpinning of desperation colored this scandal, tarnishing the legacy of a formerly illustrious Russian avant-garde collection.
Landis, who was interviewed in Artspace in greater depth back in 2014, has been canonized as something of an art world anomaly; his con, such as it was, took root in a slightly skewed spirit of philanthropy rather than greed. For years, the gentle, unobtrusive Landis donated counterfeit artworks to over 50 museums across the country, only to be caught by Oklahoma City Museum registrar Matthew Leininger in 2007. The operation wasn’t particularly sophisticated; using modern materials and fairly rudimentary techniques for aging his fakes, like deftly applied coffee grounds, Landis relied on the good faith of small, regional institutions to execute his ruse, basking in the respect and affirmation he received as a donor. Since no money changed hands, Landis was never convicted of a crime, instead finding himself the subject of a 2013 New Yorker profile and subsequent documentary, Art and Craft. Landis, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager, lives in his mother’s home in Laurel, Mississippi, and paints portraits and still lives for prominent members of the local community.
MARY BOONE'S VERDICT
Oh, girl. Veteran gallerist Mary Boone has already referred to herself as the “Martha Stewart of the art world” on the record, and despite the cringe factor, her comparison actually squares; as of Valentine's Day of 2019, she was sentenced to two and half years in federal prison after pleading guilty to filing false income tax returns. Boone, who opened her eponymous Chelsea gallery in 1977, has maintained a somewhat slippery relationship with business expenses through the years, allegedly funneling over $1.6 million into bags, clothes, cars and beauty treatments instead of, you know, business. She owes $3 million in back-taxes from 2009 to 2011, and as a result, has just announced the forthcoming closure of her Chelsea and midtown Manhattan spaces in late April. Boone has shown high-profile artists like Barbara Kruger, Ross Bleckner, Ai WeiWei and David Salle, and her tandem championship of emerging talents has inspired an outpouring of sympathy and protest from art professionals far and wide.