Sunday, 27 March 2011

Beware Jesuits in Cadillacs bearing gifts...

Father Arthur Scott drove his bright, red Cadillac up to the front of the Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette, New Orleans and promptly parked across two handicapped spaces.
He got out of the car and was greeted by Lee Gray, the Museum's curator.
Father Scott had been in touch a few weeks before and had explained that his mother had recently died leaving behind quite an extensive art collection.
Scott hoped to donate some pieces from the collection to the Museum and possibly make a financial contribution once his Mother's financial affairs were settled.
Gray lead Father Scott into the Museum and gave him a brief tour of the premises after which they gratefully accepted the piece he had brought along to gift to the institution, a pastel drawing by Charles Courtney Curran.
Soon Father Scott made his farewells and left, but not before promising to pay for a frame for the drawing and blessing the Museum and it's staff with the sign of the cross and the words "Pax vobiscum".
Gray and Mark Tullos, the Museum's Director, had found Father Scott to be an eccentric character but had met plenty of those in their time in the art world. As Tullos put it:
"In my experience with Jesuit priests and wealthy donors, it's not unusual to run into someone quirky..."
However within five minutes of Father Scott's departure the whole affair took on a whole new dimension.
Tullos received a message from Joyce Penn, the Museum's Registrar who was responsible for the cataloguing and care of the pieces donated to the institution. Having given the drawing a basic ultraviolet light scan she realised that the piece they had been given was a forgery.
It seemed most likely that someone had printed a digital image of the picture, distressed it and painted over the top of it.
Saved from the embarrassment of displaying a forgery in their Museum the next thing for the staff to determine was whether Father Scott was the perpetrator of this forgery or entirely unaware of the provenance of his donated gift.
A search of various databases and message boards used by arts institutions around the world soon revealed the truth.
There was no such man as 'Father Arthur Scott'.
They had met Mark Augustus Landis, America's most prolific and successful art forger.
For over thirty years Landis has visited museums and galleries in at least 19 states and has attempted to fool over 40 different institutions.
Often he would arrive as 'Father Scott' but he was also known to operate as 'Steven Gardiner', an art collector, and would even use his own name on occasion.
His longevity and success could be put down to a number of reasons.
The artists that Landis chooses to imitate are not the more famous names that forgers tend to go for, the Picassos, Matisses and Vermeers, but were rather more obscure names. Painters such as Curran, Alfred Jacob Miller, Louis Valtat and Milton Avery are popular enough to be accepted by the museums and galleries that Landis would target but would not attract the scrutiny that a piece apparently produced by a major name would.
The skill and range of styles that Landis presented would also help to keep people off his trail. If all he could produce were good copies in the style of Valtat then the number of pieces by one artist appearing in collections as donations would also be enough to alert the authorities.
However the factor that probably helped Landis escape detection the most was the fact that he donated his pieces and never accepted any financial reward for them. Not only would he never accept any money for the works he would also refuse to fill out forms from the institutions to allow him to record the donations as tax-deductible gifts.
Most forgers are tracked down by specialist fraud teams but Landis has never been investigated for one very simple reason.
It seems that, as he has never profited from his activities and has therefore never defrauded anyone, he has never actually committed a crime.
Once a financial angle is removed, most forgers tend to be disgruntled artists that seek to humiliate the art world and institutions that has snubbed them.
However it would appear that Landis has a much more noble aim than that.
All of his donations are made in memory of his parents and it would appear that the career as a forger that Landis has undertaken is purely to pay tribute to his mother and father.
When asked about his motives once Landis replied:

"I'd like to have had a museum named after dad or mother but I'm not a billionaire. Lots of people have pictures in museums in loved one's memories don't they? I mean, everybody's got a tombstone, that doesn't mean anything, but a picture in a museum, that really means something."

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Postal Adventures of W. Reginald Bray

W. Reginald Bray spent the majority of his life collecting autographs.

Known as the 'Autograph King' he ended up with a collection of over 15,000 autographs sourced from people from all walks of life. Bray's selection of the autographs he would hunt down was eclectic. He targeted the obvious celebrity names, film stars such as Gary Cooper, Charlie Chaplin and Laurence Olivier as well as other notable figures such as the explorer Ernest Shackleton, cricketer W.G. Grace and even managed to get a personal reply from the Pope. The fact that Bray had written to the pontiff in Latin may have aided his cause.

His success was based around the tremendous amount of requests he sent out. He only received responses from half the people he wrote to and was especially disappointed to not manage to get autographs from King George V, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler despite repeated requests. Bray was so persistent that he eventually was sent a reply from Germany explaining that the Fuhrer was too busy to respond personally to him and he should 'refrain from further letters in this regard.'

Bray also attempted to track down autographs from more unusual places and managed to get signed replies from the first person to write while flying in an aeroplane, a policeman who stopped Winston Churchill driving the wrong way up a one-way street and John Rankin, the oldest bell-ringer in England.

The postal service was invaluable to Brays project and he had every faith in the system having tested its limits in a series of experiments before he began to collect autographs. Bray was fascinated by the scale of the operation that the Royal Mail undertook and was intrigued by the limits of what this service could provide.

Initially he experimented with the finite nature of the post, it being sent simply from one point to another, by producing a postcard that had an address on both of its sides. This allowed the card to be sent through the post and redirected an infinite amount of times through a refusal to accept the card at either address and asking it to be returned to either of its 'senders'. Bray went on to post cards that were slightly smaller and larger than the Royal Mail allowed, sent cards out to addresses that were formed partly from images he drew or stuck on the card and addressed cards in rhyme form or as a picture puzzle. He also began to send cards out to people or locations with the vaguest information. Some of his cards were sent to 'The daughter of the postman who has walked 232,872 miles', 'The deserted village of Havvanah' and 'A Resident of Hallingbury where land used to be held by handing over yearly to the King's exchequer a packet of postcards and a Silver Needle'.

Eventually Bray realised that, as long as the postage was correct, the Royal Mail would send more than postcards. The official line was that the Royal Mail would deliver anything as 'small as a bumblebee and as large as an elephant.' This was a policy that Bray would exploit to the full. Over the years he posted a bowler hat, a turnip with the address carved into the surface of the vegetable itself and a rabbit's skull with the address written across the nasal bone and the correct postage attached to the surface of the skull itself. Eventually Bray hit upon the absolute limit of what the Royal Mail would be prepared to do.

He posted himself.

Presenting himself at his local Post Office with his home address tied to his wrist on a label he paid the correct postage to be delivered to his house. He was then taken to the local sorting office, processed and accompanied home by the postman.

Fortunately his delivery wasn't redirected or refused…