As long as there's been artwork, there's been forged artwork. The Romans copied from the Greeks, and Renaissance artists copied from them both. It's been happening for centuries. A shockingly lucrative black market exists to create and sell fake artworks, and only in the last few decades has technology appeared that might someday put an end to it.
Some forgers are extraordinarily talented artists in their own right, while some are just scoundrels. Some switch from forgery to the real thing (shame on you, Michelangelo!), while some just get tossed in jail. If there's one constant, however, in the world of art forgery, it's that it always makes an entertaining story. Read on to discover some of the craziest art forgeries throughout history.
Michelangelo: Sleeping Eros
The Fake: Sleeping Eros, an "ancient Roman" statue made by a 21-year-old Michelangelo in 1496 but now lost. The actual ancient Roman statue pictured here is in the same "Hellenistic tradition" as Michelangelo's fake, created by deliberately aging one of his brand-spanking-new marble statues with "acidic earth."
What Gave It Away?: It's unclear, exactly, but the fake was eventually sold to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, grandnephew of Pope Sixtus IV, and he somehow realized he had been duped. He returned it to the dealer. But by that time, Michelangelo was beloved in Rome for his legit statue Pietà. The dealer was able to quickly sell the fake again and Riario went on to become Michelangelo’s first patron in Rome. The statue, unfortunately, was likely destroyed in a fire in 1698.
See Also: Nothing. Michelangelo got out of the forgery game after Sleeping Eros and went on to become of the Renaissance's greatest artists.
Han van Meegeren: Jesus Among the Doctors
What Gave It Away?: Talk about pressure: van Meegeren painted this in front of reporters and court-appointed witnesses at a trial in 1945 in order to prove that he was a forger. Why? Because he was being accused of being a Nazi collaborator and "plunderer of Dutch cultural property" for being associated with a previously-unknown "Vermeer painting" that was sold to Nazi mastermind Hermann Göring for the equivalent of $7 million. He was fake-painting for his life, basically.
See Also: Supper at Emmaus, van Meegeren's most "successful" Vermeer rip-off.
Lothar Malskat: Fake Medieval Frescoes
The Fake: A series of "medieval frescoes" that were "discovered" in a German church by artist Lothar Malskat in 1948 when he was helping restore it after the war. The frescoes were actually brand new, but done in an old style, with purposefully anachronistic and playful details such as Malskat's sister Freyda, Rasputin, the actress Marlene Dietrich, and a turkey.
What Gave It Away?: Malskat, longing for recognition, literally had to sue himself to prove they were fake. No one believed him - despite the turkey! - and his partner-in-crime denied it.
See Also: Malskat quit the forgery game after being sentenced to 18 months in prison. His quirky-but-believable frescoes were washed off.
Mark Landis: Three WomenVideo: YouTube
The Fake: A crude-but-convincing copy of Charles Courtney Curran's Three Women created by forger Mark Landis in 2010. As seen in the YouTube clip, Landis used ballpoint pen and a pasted inkjet print of the piece, along with paint, to create an weirdly believable illusion of the real thing.
What Gave It Away?: The mentally-ill Landis dressed as "Father Arthur Scott" and visited a Louisiana art museum claiming he wanted to donate the painting in honor of his dead mother. Landis’s "discomfort talking about his activities as a priest and lack of substantial provenance" made the staff suspicious. Further examination revealed the truth about the piece.
See Also: Landis gave away dozens of pieces to to other museums and institutions over the years, and some of them were actually duped. He has never faced charges because he's not really committing any crimes - he isn't trying to sell his fakes. As an art crimes expert told the New Yorker, "Basically, you have a guy going around the country on his own nickel giving free stuff to museums."