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."

1 comment:

  1. Just brilliant, Masal, just brilliant. All of it - all the blogs. Please keep it up. I am facebooking you, bookmarking you, emailing your link to everyone I know. Thank you!