Pablo Picasso said, "Good artists copy but great artists steal." Charles Caleb Colton remarked, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." If such aphorisms are taken literally, then the art forgers listed below are both good and great—and obscene brown-nosers. They're also rich...or at least they were.
1. Han van Meegeren
Dutch painter Jan Vermeer was only moderately successful during his lifetime, never achieving much fame or fortune. When he died, he left his wife and children in debt. But Vermeer's paintings and legacy helped make a lot of other people money—including Dutch forger Han van Meegeren, who made more than $30 million in the 1930s and '40s tricking art historians and expert art dealers into believing a painting that he had conceived just months prior was actually a newly surfaced 300-year-old Vermeer.
2. Pei-Shen Qian
Pei-Shen Qian was recently indicted for his role in a $33 million fraud scheme in New York that involved two Spanish art dealers. The 75-year-old Chinese-American painter is now safe and sound in China, where he has citizenship and is unlikely to be extradited. Qian replicated the works of popular modern masters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning.
3. Wolfgang Beltracchi
Even though it may sound fun, tricking the uber rich into forking over millions for fake paintings is frowned upon. As Wolfgang Beltracchi—the German painter who's admitted to producing more than 100 forged works of 50-plus acclaimed artists—found out, it's also a jailable offense.
4. John Myatt
Scotland Yard called it "the biggest art fraud of the 20th century": Between 1986 and 1994, the English painter John Myatt painted more than 200 forgeries, fooling everyone from Sotheby's to European museums. In 1999, he got caught and sentenced to a year in prison, though he got out in four months on good behavior. Now, Myatt sells paintings as John Myatt.
5. William J. Toye
Not all forgers attempt to imitate the European masters. Although William J. Toye, a New Orleans painter, first started mimicking artists like Degas, Monet, Gauguin, and Renoir, he became most famous when he was implicated in a series of fraudulent sales of works credited to African-American folk artist Clementine Hunter. Because Hunter sold many of her hundreds of paintings door to door in Louisiana as a relative unknown, it wasn't necessarily improbable that a New Orleans native would have happened upon several of her works at a garage sale.
Toye's fraud was eventually unveiled by the FBI, and he and his wife (an accomplice) were sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay $426,393 to the people he hoodwinked. To this day, Toye remains bitter and unapologetic, and he continues to offer no appreciation of the woman who helped make him famous, saying of Hunter's paintings: “They’re junk, and really only good as dartboards.”
6. Elmyr de Hory
Hungarian artist Elmyr de Hory was imprisoned for political dissidence in his home country, sent to concentration camps by the Germans for being both Jewish and openly gay (he was a homosexual, but not Jewish), jailed in Mexico City on suspicion of murder, and jailed again in Spain for "consorting with criminals" and homosexuality.
But the man, who admitted to faking hundreds of works by famous painters from Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse to Alfred Sisley and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, never faced trial for his artistic dupery. He committed suicide in 1976, before Spain had the chance to extradite him to France to pay for his crimes of creative duplicity.
7. Robert Driessen
Dutch artist Robert Driessen is the most successful forger that very few people know about—but those few people include the European authorities, who are keen to arrest the man that allegedly sold more than 1000 fake Alberto Giacometti sculptures, netting more than $10 million. But while Driessen's German accomplices sit in prison, he is free and running a small cafe in Thailand. "I am trapped in paradise," he says.