Conservators have an uneasy relationship with forgery. Often knee-jerk reactions arise: outrage, indignation, feelings of being duped, and sometimes a closet admiration of a particular craft skill. While certainly valid, and generally true, they can be somewhat of a conversation stopper. Deep down, I find myself a bit envious that forgers get so much media attention, and that this attention is generally overwhelmingly sympathetic. Conservation is just as interesting, right?
Some examinations of philosophic aspects forgery within the field of conservation include AIC’s 2007 Annual Meeting, “Fakes, Forgeries and Fabrications” and tangential papers like conservation rock star Salvador Munoz Vinas’s 2011 “The Frankenstein Syndrome” in Ethics and Critical Thinking in Conservation. Once, I discovered a forged portion of a Gutenberg Bible I was working on, thankfully it belonged to an institutional client, rather than a private one. Since we spend a lot of time looking at very small things, maybe it is difficult to change perspective, take the optivisor off, and look at this issue a bit more broadly.
The movie Art and Craft tells the story of Mark Landis, a contemporary forger. It is an entirely enjoyable film, the directors allow Landis to show and tell his story with little interference. The film clearly articulates his reasons and motivations for forgery while not becoming overly romantic. Landis, a diagnosed schizophrenic, is shown visiting his therapists and at home, generally watching tv and copying pictures from art books at the same time. He is quite likely more a victim of “the system” more than someone taking advantage of it. A couple of times he is shown engaging in quotidian activities; eating a dinner of melba toast dipped into a container of margarine, for example.
Mark Landis. Source: <http://i.imgur.com/XzrQz4K.jpg>
Early on, the film reveals his primary motivation for creating forgeries: he wants to be a philanthropist. But he realizes quite quickly it is hard to be a philanthropist without money or art to give away; he had to create the art in order to distribute it. Also, he liked being treated like a philanthropist, and he admits becoming addicted to it. Who wouldn’t? So he keeps making more forgeries. The film delves into his personality, much of which seems to be strongly influenced by a tv that always seemed to be on. He is self-aware of these influences, and tells others of their source. For example, he started smoking because he saw characters in 1940’s movies smoking to calm down, so he thought it would help calm his nerves, and curb his compulsion to pace.
The film emphasizes the naturalness, almost an innocence, of his desire to copy works of art. The motivations behind many forgers (which are generally not pecuniary by the way) are often egotistically motivated: proving oneself equal to the great artists or “getting even” with the art experts by exposing their ignorance. In addition to his philanthropic desires, Landis also simply likes to copy things, again because it calms him down. Repetitive hand motions and using hand-eye coordination is comforting to him. Sound familiar?
The antagonist in this film is a Matthew Leininger, a museum registrar, who originally noticed a number of identical paintings in numerous museums, and over the years slowly closed in on Landis. When seeing some of the paintings, the audience wonders how they could have fooled anyone. Many are not of Eric Hebborn or Elmyr de Hory caliber, though Landis is certainly capable of finely crafted work. Many of his forgeries are a color photocopy of a work with acrylic medium smeared on the surface, to resemble brushstrokes. The materials he uses are all standard off the shelf art supplies from Michaels, and the frames from Home Depot, though he slightly antiques them. He often photocopies a certificate of sale from a major auction house or defunct gallery to aid in establishing provenance and adheres this to the back.
The Mona Lisa, Mark Landis, 2014. On view at Think Coffee, NYC. Photo by Jeff Peachey.
In Think Coffee, a coffee shop near the Angelica Film Center in NYC where I saw the film, an original Mark Landis painting hangs. In this case, he has signed his own name, and the price tag is $25,000. When I saw it, there was no red dot on the label. The painting is hanging in an ordinary wall space above a seat. I hesitate to call it a forgery, since it would be impossible, I think, for anyone to confuse this with the real thing. It looks like a color photocopy with acrylic medium and some painted additions, though the light is pretty low. Is it a forgery of a forgery? Or a copy of a copy? Or just a photocopy with some paint on it?
Landis is quite cavalier concerning his lack of interest in technical details. In an online reddit interview he dismissively leaves it to others. “And as far as artists that use brushstrokes, it’s something I never really gave much thought to. Experts supposedly can tell things like that, an expert is just someone who knows a great deal about something and sometimes he’s right.” And what does it say about our culture that many museum professionals don’t bother to look closely enough to tell a photocopy from a painting? Is it the result of looking at most things reproduced through a computer screen? To be fair, the film does show other examples of his work, drawing and paintings, that are very skillfully executed.
Typical of Landis, he spins a variety conflicting press reports about his work, even the copy of Mona Lisa on display. Was it was painted in 90 minutes as is generally reported or did it take an entire weekend? If sold, will the proceeds benefit the museum in his hometown, the Lauren Rogers Museum? The museum’s marketing director denies this is true. Again, according to the reddit interview, the most one of his paintings has sold for is $800.
Here we enter an interesting terrain: Landis, who by copying so earnestly, and seemingly created by his media environment, may convolute some of the Benjaminian notions of the aura of authenticity and the copy. He compulsively recreates copies of copies, over and over, quite likely unable to stop despite protests and essentially being caught. Landis himself admits he has not seen most of the works he copies, only reproductions. There seems to be no authentic work to be copied in his world. He becomes a Warholian performance artist, quite possibly the value of his work in is the transactions, and the changes in perception of the value of his work: genuine, forgery, doesn’t matter?
Landis does not confine himself to assume the persona of a wealthy philanthropist, there are references to at least three other characters he portrays. In one hilarious scene (shown in the trailer below), he is dressed as a catholic priest, and shown blessing a unknowing recipient.
A question that comes up in the movie that is often asked of forgers—in fact, sometimes restorers and conservators— is why don’t you create your own work? Landis is charasticly straightforward when he replies that he doesn’t have anything he wants to paint, he just likes copying others work. It is hard for the viewer to resent him. Indeed, he wants come clean, and earn a living based on his skills, as his website selling copies of photographs indicates. A charcoal or pencil drawing starts at $250, and a painting in acrylic or oil is $650. There is an interesting caveat you must click: “I certify that the photos provided are owned by me and do not represent an attempt to commit a forgery of copyrighted work.” Good idea, an invitation for more forgery, or a bit of bravado?
I left the movie feeling his forgeries were not only harmless, but in fact a positive thing: he really was making people happy by giving them gifts, and he seemed to get pleasure from it. What more could we ask from a transaction? Leininger, the registrar, is presented as the killjoy. And even though Landis has tentatively agreed not to gift forgeries to institutions, the movie ends with him headed in a new direction, with similar ethical questions and even less accountability.
Forgers and magicians are experts at misdirection. Landis even compares himself to a magician at one point, when someone asked how he painted his Mona Lisa. “Well, it’s like a magic trick you know. If I told people, it wouldn’t be worth anything anymore.” Has Landis manipulating the director to miss the essential elements of his ethical, if not legal crimes? Could this entire film be considered a meta-forgery, where the viewer is the one duped? The thought even crossed my mind that he might produce obvious forgeries in order to continue producing more sophisticated ones.
Art and Craft provides an entertaining and engaging conversation starter for a number of issues surrounding forgery.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 2007. This extremely important essay comes up in virtually every discussion of forgery.
F is for Fake Movie. Dir. Orson Wells. 1974. A tangled web involving Elymr de Hory and Clifford Irving.
Hebborn, Eric. Confessions of a Master Forger: The Updated Autobiography. London: Cassell, 1997. Regardless how you feel about him, he is a skilled and entertaining writer with a fascinating history.
Hebborn, Eric. The Art Forger’s Handbook. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1997. This is a how-to book.
Irving, Clifford. Fake!: The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969. Irving’s interest in forgery became more than academic; he later faked an autobiography of Howard Hughes. Is forgery a contagious disease?
Meyers, Robin and Michael Harris, eds. Fakes & Frauds: Varieties of Deception in Print and Manuscript. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1996. A collection of essays dealing with forged books and documents.
Schwartz, Hillel. The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles. New York: Zone Books, 1996. A lengthy examination of twins, doppelgängers, self-portraits, seeing double, ditto, reenactment, replication and more in 565 pages.
Radnoti, Sandor. Fake: Forgery and Its Place in Art, trans. Ervin Dunai. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999. An important philosophical take on forgery.
Any other favorites?
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