One collaborated with the Nazis. One claimed to be a Hungarian aristocrat selling his art collection. One switched from art restoration to forgery. One took out an ad in the paper, offering "Genuine Fakes." One posed as a philanthropist.
The five men are at the center of "Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World," a traveling exhibition at The Ringling this summer. The show includes 60 artworks, some forgeries of works by such artists as Charles Courtney Curran, Honore Daumier, Philip de Laszlo, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso, and a display of some of the tools the forgers use to create their fakes. Some authentic works from the Ringling's own collection are also folded into the exhibit.
The exhibit was put together by International Arts and Artists of Washington, D.C. Curator Colette Loll is an art fraud expert who works with Homeland Security and private collectors in art fraud investigations. In doing research for documentaries and books about famous forgers, Loll "thought it would be a really provocative exhibition, not only looking at the art but also in studying the criminals."
The forgers profiled in the exhibit include:
Hans van Meegeren (1889-1947), who forged Old Masters paintings by developing a technique that mimicked centuries-old oil paint by mixing Bakelite into his paints. He created an "early religious period" for Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer; in 1937, his "Supper at Emmaus" was declared an authentic Vermeer by a Dutch art expert. He was convicted of forgery and fraud but died before serving his prison sentence.
Elmyr De Hory (1906-1976), who forged more than just artwork. He created a fake identity and persona for himself as a Hungarian aristocrat selling his art collection. An artist himself, he turned to forgery when his own work failed to support him at the level he had hoped for. He bought 19th-century canvases at flea markets as the basis for his forged works. He was the subject of Clifford Irving's biography, "Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time," and an Orson Wells film, "F for Fake." He committed suicide while facing extradition to France to stand trial for his crimes.
Eric Hebborn (1934-1996) began as a draftsman and expert in historic paper. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Arts, he had considerable drawing skills that were not in demand in the middle of the 20th century. His forgeries focused on artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. He was murdered shortly after the publication of his book, "The Art Forger's Handbook."
nJohn Myatt (1945-) created forgeries of more than 200 modernist painters and offered them for sale as "Genuine Fakes," but it was his partnership with con artist John Drewe that took him into illegal waters. Drewe created false documents supporting Myatt's work and then sold the works. Myatt is now a famous artist in his own right.
Mark Landis (1955-) posed as a philanthropist who wanted to donate artworks in honor of his parents, creating false documents and aliases. Thought to be suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, he has never profited from the donation of the forged works and has never been the subject of criminal charges.
What unifies the forgers are two things: A high level of artistic ability, and a narcissistic personality.
"More than anything, they're gifted con men," said Loll. "The real gift is in the con. Most of them went to enormous lengths to perpetuate the con behind the sale. Psychologically, they have a lot of things in common. They were not accepted by the art world and they resented that."
Two aspects go into creating a successful forgery, said Chris Jones, associate curator for exhibitions at the Ringling. "One is the kind of technical aspect, like fooling the eye of the connoisseur, and the other is concocting a believable story, speechcraft, getting people to believe in the fake."
There is a difference between a fake and a forgery, said Loll. A fake is a work of art that duplicates an existing work; a forgery is done "in the style of" another artist.
The art world relies on a three-tiered approach to authenticate works: Connoisseurship (experts agreeing that a work reflects the style and technique of a particular artist), provenance (the history of the artwork's ownership) and technical analysis (to verify that an artwork is from a particular era). The system can break down at any point, said Loll.
Experts can be fooled, "sometimes spectacularly so," said Loll. The marketplace is complacent. And methodologies for detection are cost-prohibitive for the average collector.
"It's interesting to me that people don't do the kind of due diligence that they do to buy a car," said Loll.
She's fascinated by the psychology behind the forgeries.
"Lying is at the heart of it," she said. " 'Intent to Deceive' is an important title. That's part of a legal definition."
Van Meegeren's forged Vermeeers are now so valuable in their own right that the inclusion of "The Head of Christ," on loan from a museum in the Netherlands, required more than $30,000 in special security arrangements.
The exhibit opened first in Springfield, Mass., and continues on to the Canton Museum of Art in Ohio and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art (which at one point was the recipient of a donated forgery by Mark Landis).
"Museums have a terrible fear of being duped," said Jones.
INTENT TO DECEIVE: FAKES AND FORGERIES IN THE ART WORLD. Through Aug. 2 at The Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, til 8 on Thursdays. Museum admission is $25 adults, $20 seniors, $10 Florida teachers and active duty military, $5 students and children 6-17, free on Mondays. 359-5700, www.ringling.org; www.intenttodeceive.org