8 of the Most Notorious Art Forgeries in History
Whether for monetary gain or possibly thrill alone, art forgers have fabricated lost pieces, made exacting copies of originals, and imagined whole new visions in the style of famed creators. There are so many examples of these deceptions that there’s a Museum of Art Fakes in Vienna, Austria, filled with duplicitous work. Here are eight of the most notorious forgeries in history, from a Vermeer that tricked a Nazi to a fake antiquity sculpted by Michelangelo himself.
1. The Faun
For 10 years, an 18.5-inch ceramic sculpture of a faun attributed to French artist Paul Gauguin was a prized artwork of the Chicago Art Institute. But in 2007, it was revealed as just one of many forgeries created and sold by the Greenhalgh family of northern England—perhaps one of the most notorious family of art forgers who ever lived.
The son, Shaun, produced the sculptures; his parents, George and Olive, were the salespeople. The family generated an astounding range of work, complete with counterfeit documents such as letters and bills of sale to establish (fake) provenance. Other Greenhalgh forgeries included the 10th-century Eadred Reliquary they attempted to sell to Manchester University, an ancient Egyptian statue known as the Amarna Princess that made it into the Bolton Museum, and a Roman silver tray called the Risley Park Lanx that was purchased by the British Museum. Often, the Greenhalghs made copies of lost objects that could potentially turn up at an auction or in an attic. Shaun based his faun ceramic on an 1800s sketch in Gauguin’s notebook, drawing on this real illustration to assemble something that could theoretically exist. Technical analysis of the piece by the museum had found no red flags.
While police estimated the family made around $1.6 million from illicit artwork, they lived simply in public housing in the industrial town of Bolton. Shaun crafted his faux masterpieces in the garden shed. The family’s downfall came with three Assyrian reliefs that were offered to the British Museum around 2005. Experts noticed historical inaccuracies, and the museum contacted Scotland Yard. After making and selling forgeries for the better part of two decades, the Greenhalghs were finally exposed. Shaun was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison; his elderly parents received suspended or deferred sentences. Following his release in 2010, Shaun Greenhalgh claimed that some of his forgeries were still out there, fooling the art world.
2. Sleeping Eros
Before becoming a leading sculptor of the Renaissance, Michelangelo was an art forger. In 1496, at age 21, the Italian artist carved a sleeping cupid figure in marble and treated it to appear like the ancient Roman statues that were then wildly popular. Often called Sleeping Eros, his forged antiquity was sold through art dealer Baldassarre del Milanese to the Cardinal Raffaele Riario. (By some accounts, it was the dealer who aged the sculpture, by burying it in his vineyard.)
When the Cardinal found out about the deception, he returned the statue but did not press charges against the clearly talented young artist. Rather than hurt Michelangelo’s reputation, the act of chicanery enhanced it. Cardinal Riario commissioned works from the Florentine sculptor, including Bacchus, now in the Bargello in Florence. Sleeping Eros, meanwhile, has since been lost, believed destroyed in a 1698 fire at London’s Whitehall Palace.
3. The Marienkirche Frescoes
When Lübeck, Germany, was bombed on March 29, 1942, the Marienkirche church was one of many historic buildings to go up in flames. As the fires raged, plaster fell off the church’s walls, uncovering long-forgotten gothic frescoes. The stunning find amid the destruction was called called “the miracle of Marienkirche" and protected by some improvised roofing. However, by the war’s end, the paintings were in very bad shape. Lothar Malskat, who was assisting restorer Dietrich Fey in the conservation, later stated that barely any of the original paint survived and “even that turned to dust when I blew on it.”
Yet in 1951, the frescoes were pronounced restored. People celebrated these icons of postwar reconstruction; commemorative stamps were issued. No one seemed to question the vibrancy of the pigments or that so many of the details had endured through the bombs and exposure to the elements. But about eight months later, Malskat himself—resentful because Fey had taken all the credit for the restoration—stepped forward and claimed he had painted them all. Malskat even admitted basing the face of the Virgin Mary on 1930s Austrian actress Hansi Knoteck, using his father as one of the prophets, modeling another figure on Rasputin, and employing a brick to distress the portraits. He and Fey were arrested and eventually sentenced to prison time. Other Malskat forgeries—including takes on Marc Chagall and Matisse—were subsequently revealed when police searched his house. Some of the frescoes were ultimately plastered over, while others reportedly remain in the church.
4. The Rospigliosi Cup
In the late 1970s, research on a cache of a thousand drawings by 19th-century German goldsmith Reinhold Vasters sent anxious waves through the museum world. Although they had been at the Victoria and Albert Museum since his death in 1909, no one had apparently looked at the designs too closely until a re-examination by curious scholars. That's when they noticed that many of the designs matched works that supposedly dated to the Renaissance, including objects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1984, it was reported that at least 45 items of the Met's European jewelry and other objects were centuries younger than believed. Among them was the famed Rospigliosi Cup, once attributed to 16th-century Italian goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini.
As Philippe de Montebello, then director of the Met, told The New York Times, “Most likely every major repository of Renaissance jewelry, metalwork and mounted crystals will find that a disturbing proportion of their holdings date from the 19th and not the 16th or 17th century.” Further investigation revealed that Viennese collector Frederic Spitzer, who had commissioned several objects in a Renaissance style from Vasters, may have been the one who passed them off as antiques. The Rospigliosi Cup remains on view at the Met, but it’s identified as a masterful 19th-century copy rather than the real thing.
5. Vase de Fleurs
In 2000, something strange happened at two major auction houses. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s had the same painting in their spring catalogues: Paul Gauguin’s 1885 Vase de Fleurs (Lilas). They immediately presented the two works to a Gauguin expert, who declared that Christie’s had a forgery on its hands. Curiously, the history of both paintings involved the New York-based art dealer Ely Sakhai.
As Sakhai would later explain in his guilty plea, he made a business of acquiring authentic, but not well-known, works by artists including Gauguin, Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, Paul Klee, and Auguste Renoir. He then had Chinese immigrant artists make copies. The copies were incredibly detailed, down to imperfections on the back of the canvas, and often came with certificates of authenticity. Sakhai mostly sold the reproductions in Asia and the originals in Europe and the United States, hoping they would never meet. They eventually did, and Sakhai was sentenced to 41 months in prison and ordered to pay $12.5 million to the duped collectors.
6. Han van Meegeren’s Vermeers
Following the end of World War II, the Allied Art Commission started the long task of repatriating art looted by the Nazis. In the hands of Hermann Göring they came across something unexpected: a formerly unknown painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. The commission traced its sale to another Dutch artist, Han van Meegeren, who was also an art dealer. But van Meegeren refused to name the painting's rightful owner before the Nazis had taken over, and so was arrested and charged with treason.
Han van Meegeren was in a quandary. To save himself from this serious charge he would have to admit to a whole history of forgery. Over several years, he'd earned millions from his fakes. This deceit had followed a struggling career as an artist whose work was dismissed by critics who thought his Rembrandt-style portraits lacked originality.
His first Vermeer—Christ at Emmaus—used authentic-seeming pigments, but the scene was new. He also added Bakelite to give the canvas the texture of a centuries-old painting, then cooked it in a pizza oven. In 1937, an authority on Dutch art proclaimed it “a hitherto unknown painting by a great master […] And what a picture!” Van Meegern’s success wasn’t because he had expertly mimicked Vermeer’s style; he had aped it just enough and played into the existing belief that there had been a religious period of the artist’s life, and this new work filled in that gap. He painted six more, including Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, that would be acquired by Göring. He bought champagne and hotels and hid the rest of his money in the garden and beneath the floorboards of his increasing number of properties.
After six weeks in prison he finally told his jailers: “You think I sold a priceless Vermeer to Göring? There was no Vermeer. I painted it myself.” No one believed him. So, he painted another in front of reporters and court-appointed witnesses. He was ultimately sentenced to one year in prison, although he died before he served his sentence. By then, he'd been transformed into a Dutch folk hero who had fooled the Nazis.
7. Mary Todd Lincoln Portrait
For over three decades, a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln hung in the Illinois governor’s mansion. It was attributed to famed 19th-century portrait painter Francis Bicknell Carpenter and came with a dramatic story about it being a surprise gift for President Abraham Lincoln, commissioned by his wife Mary Todd in 1864. Before she could give it to him, he was assassinated.
However, when an art restorer examined it around 2012, he found that the signature had been added sometime after the painting was finished. In fact, the painting didn’t represent Mary Todd at all, but instead an anonymous woman. The New York Times, which had reported on the painting’s “discovery” in 1929, stated that it was a con by a man named Ludwig Pflum. It’s believed he changed some of the features on the painting, including adding a brooch with an image of President Lincoln, in a successful effort to sell it to Lincoln’s family. The family had donated it to the state’s historical library in the 1970s, and it ended up in the governor's mansion shortly thereafter.
8. Shakespeare Flower Portrait
A portrait of William Shakespeare signed with a date of 1609 was long considered by many to be a rare depiction of the English playwright created during his lifetime. That was before a 2005 investigation by art experts with the National Portrait Gallery in London determined that the oil painting on wood panel was only as old as the early 19th century.
Called the “Flower Portrait” after Sir Desmond Flower, who gave it to the Royal Shakespeare Company, it regularly appeared on books and publications of the Bard’s plays over the last century or so. It’s now believed that the portrait, in which a wide-eyed Shakespeare wears a big white collar, was based on the Droeshout portrait that accompanied the first folio publication of Shakespeare's work in 1623. Previously, it was theorized that the “Flower portrait” was actually the inspiration for the Droeshout engraving, a posthumous portrait of Shakespeare. One of the giveaways in the Flower portrait fraud was the chrome yellow present in the paint, a pigment that only dates to the early 1800s.