8 of the Most Notorious Art Forgeries in History

Copy of the Rospigliosi cup formerly attributed to Benvenuto Cellini.
Copy of the Rospigliosi cup formerly attributed to Benvenuto Cellini.

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

The faun once attributed to Paul GauguinCarlos E. Restrepo, Wikimedia // CC BY 3.0

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

An ancient Greek bronze statue of Eros sleeping, of the type that might have inspired MichelangeloThe Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

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

Copy of the Rospigliosi cup formerly attributed to Benvenuto CelliniMetropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

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

Han van Meegeren at work, 1945
GaHetNa (Nationaal Archief NL), Wikimedia

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

The Flower Portrait of Shakespeare The Washington Times, Wikimedia // Public Domain

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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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8 Times People Ruined Priceless Works of Art

Antonio Canova, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Antonio Canova, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

“Don’t touch the art” is a simple rule, enacted by almost every gallery and museum in the world. Yet for some reason, there are a select few who choose to ignore it, either because their curiosity gets the best of them, or, in a surprising number of cases, because they're on a quest for the perfect selfie. Whatever their motives, the museum-goers below left a trail of mangled artwork in their wakes.

1. Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix

If any lesson should be taken from art gallery mishaps, it’s that you should never use a valuable work of art as a piece of furniture. In July 2020, an unnamed tourist from Austria decided to luxuriate on the plaster cast of Antonio Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix (1804) at Italy’s Antonio Canova Museum to make his selfie look as casual as possible. (Bonaparte was Napoleon’s sister.) In doing so, he crumbled the toes of poor Pauline, who is depicted in the sculpture as reclining on a cushion. Surveillance footage shows the man acknowledging the loss of the extremities before walking away. Police later identified him from a museum reservation. He apologized for the accident and offered to pay for the restoration work.

2. Dom Sebastiao Statue

In 2016, a 24-year-old visiting Lisbon, Portugal, made a very bad call when he climbed onto a 126-year-old statue installed on the facade of Lisbon, Portugal's Rossio Train Station to snap a selfie. The freestanding statue, which depicted 16th century king Dom Sebastiao, toppled over and shattered on the ground. The tourist, who attempted to flee, was caught by the authorities and eventually forced to appear in front of a judge; Portugal's infrastructure department has no information about when the statue will be fixed.

3. Statua Dei Due Ercole

Hercules might have had the strength of the Gods, but unfortunately, that toughness didn't translate to sculptures of him. In 2016, two tourists visiting the Loggia dei Militi Palace in Cremona, Italy, damaged the 300-year-old Statua dei due Ercole (Statue of Two Hercules) when they climbed on it to take a selfie. The tourists were reportedly hanging off the crown of one of the marble figures—which held the town's emblem between them—when it gave way, falling to the ground. The tourists were charged with vandalism, and the government called in experts to assess the damage.

4. Ecce Homo

The most famous (read: hilarious) art "restoration" in history might be 80-year-old Cecilia Gimenez’s attempt to fix a deteriorating fresco painting at a church in Borja, Spain. Her new and improved art made international headlines and inspired endless internet memes in 2012. Saturday Night Live even worked the news into their Weekend Update segment a couple of times, with Kate McKinnon playing Gimenez.

The painting, a depiction of Jesus Christ by artist Elías García Martínez in the 1930s, was flaking due to moisture; Gimenez, a parishioner at the church, worked off a 10-year-old photo of the fresco while doing her restoration. When her work was revealed, Ecce Homo was redubbed "Potato Jesus." Gimenez told a Spanish TV station that she had approval to work on the fresco (which authorities deny), and had done so during the day. “The priest knew it,” she said. “I’ve never tried to do anything hidden.”

Though the church had originally planned to work with art restorers to fix the fresco, by 2014 they had changed their tune. Gimenez's artwork became a major tourist attraction, bringing 150,000 visitors from around the world and revitalizing Borja. The church charged $1.25 a head to see the artwork, which was preserved behind plexiglass, just like another very famous, memeworthy work of art: the Mona Lisa. A center dedicated to the interpretation of the new Ecce Homo opened in 2016.

5. Qing Dynasty Vases

Rule number one for entering any space with priceless art: tie your shoelaces. In February 2006, a man named Nick Flynn took the wrong staircase inside the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England—and when he tried to change course, he accidentally stepped on his own untied shoelace and fell. With no handrails to grab, the only thing to break his fall were three Qing Dynasty vases from the 1600s and 1700s, which were sitting on a windowsill. Flynn was unhurt, but the vases, worth more than $100,000, were not so lucky: They shattered into 400 pieces.

"Although [I knew] the vase would break I didn't imagine it would be loose and crash into the other two," he said. "I'm sure I only hit the first one and that must have flown across the windowsill and hit the next one, which then hit the other, like a set of dominos." Flynn, who was reportedly banned from the museum, called the incident “just one of those unbelievably unlucky things that can sometimes happen.”

This story has something of a happy ending, though: By August 2006, Penny Bendall, a ceramic restorer, had glued one of the vases—which had broken into 113 pieces—back together for an exhibition on art restoration. "Putting the vase back together may have looked impossible to most people but actually it wasn't a difficult job—fairly straightforward," she told the Daily Mail.

6. Annunciazione

Should you be given a pass for breaking something if it was technically already broken? In 2013, a Missouri man visiting Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence, Italy, wanted to see how the pinky finger of a 600-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary by Giovanni d’Ambrogio measured up next to his own. You know what happened next: The man got a little too close and damaged the statue's digit. Thankfully, the finger that he broke was made of plaster and not original to the sculpture, and art restorers grabbed it quickly before it could fall and be further damaged. The man apologized, and restorers at the museum made plans to repair the finger again. Hopefully the second fix was more permanent.

7. The Drunken Satyr

The good news is this Milan statue, which lost its left leg to an unknown selfie enthusiast in 2014, was a replica of another statue that dates back to 220 BCE. The bad news is that the replica was still very valuable and pretty old, dating back to the 1800s. Security cameras in that area of the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera weren't working when the incident occurred, but according to the Daily Mail, witnesses saw a student tourist climb onto the statue and sit on its knee to take a photo. What the student didn't realize was that the statue, made of terra cotta and plaster, had been assembled in pieces, and the leg was already partially detached; museum director Franco Marrocco told the Corriere della Sera that the museum was already planning to restore the statue before the accident.

8. The Actor

A 6-foot-tall Picasso painting is pretty hard to miss when it’s hung on a museum wall, just as the visitor who fell into one back in January 2010 discovered. A woman was attending a class at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art when she lost her footing and tumbled into The Actor, leaving a 6-inch tear as well as a dent in the lower right corner of the 1904 artwork. “We saw the big, coarse threads that looked sort of like a nasty jute rug,” Gary Tinterow, chairman of the museum’s department of 19th Century, Modern and Contemporary art, said in an interview. “The question was how to get Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

That process took three months. Lucy Belloli, a conservator at the Met, told The New York Times that the process involved photographing the canvas, securing flakes of paint with adhesive, and using strips of paper with rabbit-skin glue as bandages, as well as a six-week period of realigning the painting using small sand bags. ("[T]he torn portion of the canvas had to be gently coaxed back to its flat state, otherwise it would have a tendency to return to the distortion left by the accident," the Times explained.) Some retouching was also necessary. The painting was returned to the wall in April 2010 with a layer of Plexiglass to protect it; most visitors would not have been able to tell the painting was ever damaged.

This story has been updated for 2020.