Vermeer’s secrets: Why we’re fascinated by art fakes

One of the most prolific forgers in US history, Mark Landis, spent 20 years posing as a philanthropist and donating fakes he’d created to over 50 museums, while never profiteering. “I’d never been treated before in my life with so much respect and deference,” he said. “I got addicted to it.” Despite the deception, Landis never made any money from it, so it wasn’t seen as a crime.

Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi profited handsomely from their crimes – passing off their own creations as works by artists such as Max Ernst and Fernand Léger, and selling them for millions, before getting caught out by the wrong pigment. They both served lengthy prison sentences. But when interviewed for an upcoming book they said they “got a kick” out of fooling a “fraudulent” art world. “For some forgers, I think it’s a kind of pathological behaviour,” says Wieseman. “It is a fascinating subculture.”

Tricks of the trade

Crime writer Peter James interviewed real-life art forgers to research his latest book, Picture You Dead, which revealed secrets such as sourcing a genuine artist’s smock from the period so that any fabric fibres that made it onto the paintwork would date it correctly.

Forgers are wily, agrees Fletcher. “Good forgers will have done their research. They’ll know not to use pigments that were made after the supposed date of the creation of the work. That’s the kind of stuff that tripped up forgers 50 years ago.” He’s heard of forgers sending test pieces to laboratories dedicated to determining authenticity to see if they’re along the right lines. Forgers will likely target artists where there is speculation or uncertainty over exactly how many works they created in their lifetime – so to cause less suspicion when a “new”, uncatalogued work suddenly appears on the market.

But if the forgers are getting better, so is the technology that catches them out. “I would hate to be a forger now because I think that the scientific techniques and the imaging techniques have become so sophisticated,” says Wieseman. “It’s possible to pinpoint the location where a particular mineral pigment comes from, for example a region in Afghanistan.”

Scandals like the Knoedler one make the art world extra cautious. “It kind of laid bare that the biggest names in this trade are just as exposed to getting it wrong,” says Fletcher. “And some galleries and auction houses have a lot more reputation at risk than others.”