From the Less Notorious to the Virtually Unknown

The “celebrity” forgers discussed here give a public face to the production of fraudulent art. However, there are many other forgers whose activity, taken collectively, extends much further. In addition to those whose output has been predominantly in paintings and drawings, some have worked in other mediums. The impact of the fraud from these figures is considerable. Their notoriety is less, however, because the level of attention they have received has been limited by media judgments about how compelling their stories are, or because they have chosen to avoid the limelight rather than seek fame and fortune by publicizing their exploits.

During the 1970s and 1980s, German artist Edgar Mrugalla forged three thousand paintings and prints by fifty artists ranging from Rembrandt to Renoir, Klimt, and Nolde. When the market was flooded in 1987 with fakes of his favorite target, Picasso, he was arrested and sentenced to two years’ probation in exchange for his cooperation in locating his forgeries and identifying the works of other forgers. Mrugalla claimed to have earned only a small amount of money from his large output, while dealers made enormous profits. He wrote a memoir, King of the Art Forgers (in German),262 and was interviewed occasionally by the German press. He continued to paint, selling under his own name but with limited success, saying in 2008, “When the Ministry of Economics in Kiel exhibited my pictures, there were protests from all sides. I am considered a worthless artist.”263 It has been estimated that two thousand Mrugalla fakes are undiscovered.264

In Australia from the 1960s to the 1990s, William Blundell produced, by his own estimation, thirty-five hundred to four thousand paintings and drawings that simulated the styles of twentieth-century Australian artists including Brett Whiteley, Arthur Streeton, William Dobell, and others. He sold hundreds of fakes to dealer Germaine Curvers, which she sold from her gallery and through auctions as originals. When Curvers died in 1997 and her will was challenged, Blundell admitted to painting two hundred suspect works held in the estate but said they were “innuendos” and that Curvers was well aware they were not originals.265 Records from Curvers’s files showed that over a ten-year period she paid Blundell a total of $40,000 for numerous paintings at prices of $100 to $200 each, which she marketed for figures in the thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.266

Another sector of Modernism targeted for forgery is the Bombay Progressive Artists Group. For five years beginning in 2009, British forger William Mumford created paintings in the style of Sayed Haider Raza, Francis Newton Souza, and Maqbool Fida Husain (sometimes called “the Picasso of India”) along with works by other artists. The fakes were distributed by Mumford’s wife and four more intermediaries, mostly through auctions, for prices of a few thousand dollars each. The ring was exposed when Bonhams alerted Scotland Yard, and a raid of Mumford’s garage uncovered hundreds of paintings along with materials for creating documents of false provenance. Mumford admitted to producing as many as one thousand fake paintings, sales from just some of which would have totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for fraud and money laundering, his wife to one year, and the other co-conspirators to terms ranging from one year to twenty-one months. It has been estimated that hundreds of Mumford’s forgeries were sold as originals.267

American forger William Toye is known to have produced Impressionist and Post-Impressionist fakes, but he specialized in the works of twentieth-century folk artist Clementine Hunter, known as the “black Grandma Moses.” His wife, Beryl, provided false provenance by claiming she bought many original paintings from Hunter in the 1960s and 1970s.268 Toye was arrested in 1974 when twenty-two Hunter paintings in his possession were confiscated, twenty-one of which proved to be fakes, but he was not prosecuted. In 1997, the Toyes consigned a fake Matisse painting to an auction in Louisiana that was halted when it was found that 125 entries from other sources also were likely to be forgeries. In 2009, they were indicted along with art dealer Robert Lucky, who was said to have sold hundreds of fakes he obtained from them. The Toyes were sentenced in 2011 to two years of probation and $425,000 restitution when they agreed to cooperate in the investigation of Lucky, who was sentenced in 2012 to twenty-five months in prison and $325,000 restitution.269

Christian Goller was a talented painting restorer and copyist working in the styles of Old Masters. He has also been labeled as one of the world’s most important forgers. The stylistic copies he created were noticed in the mid-1970s in Germany by expert authenticator Hubertus von Sonnenburg, who recognized similarities of technique in paintings accepted as originals by Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Matthias Grünewald, Hans Holbein, and others. When Von Sonnenburg went to the press, Goller identified himself as the painter but said he sold the works as imitations and had no control over their resale. When a Grünewald painting the Cleveland Museum of Art had purchased for $1 million was found to be a fake, Goller declared it as his work.270 In a 1985 interview with Art and Antiques, he held to his assertion that he was merely a copyist with outstanding skills, and said so again in a 1991 television documentary about his technique, which described his meticulous creation of false craquelure, the use of old pigments and old canvases, and the transfer of layers of paint using intermediate layers of gauze in a way capable of fooling X-ray detection.271 In 2014, Goller was investigated by German authorities for the sale of fifty-five Cranach fakes along with paintings by other artists.272 That action was suspended in 2017 due to Goller’s ill health,273 and he died in the same year.

Renato Peretti’s name has been raised periodically in connection with forgeries of paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, particularly his “metaphysical” works. In the late 1970s, Peretti was arrested in Italy for selling fraudulent art, and although he died before his trial concluded, he produced a list of works appearing in De Chirico’s catalogue raisonné that he claimed to be fakes made by himself, including sixty he was certain of and fifty-seven more he suspected.274 The De Chirico Foundation, responsible for the catalogue, has described Peretti as a “mythomaniac” who made unfounded grand claims, but still admitted that there are fakes among the many works in the catalogue and that Peretti was a longtime forger. An opposing organization, the Archive of Metaphysical Art, has taken a skeptical position, noting that many works in the catalogue were examined only by photograph and that De Chirico himself questioned the accuracy of the catalogue. Observers of the controversy have pointed out that the foundation owns three hundred works by De Chirico (suggesting self-interested partiality) and that the president of the archive was convicted of selling De Chirico forgeries.275

Another case of expert opinion entangled with concern about forgery involves Christian Parisot, president of the Modigliani Institute in Rome. He has authored several books on Modigliani’s life and works as well as a catalogue raisonné, and he holds the French droit moral (moral right bestowed by law) for authentication. In 2010, he was convicted in Paris for exhibiting seventy-seven forged drawings he claimed to have been made by Jeanne Hébuterne, Modigliani’s mistress, and given a two-year prison sentence (suspended) as well as a $70,000 fine.276 Also in 2010, the investigation of an exhibition of Modigliani’s works that Parisot organized in Italy found twenty-two forgeries that carried certificates of authenticity and a total value of $8.7 million.277 He was convicted in 2012 and reportedly served a sentence of house arrest that ended in 2016.278 Parisot’s catalogue raisonné is one of six competing volumes by dueling experts, each of which has been criticized for what has been included or left out.279

In the medium of bronze sculpture, Guy Hain has been a major source of forgeries. Using his own foundry as well as others in France in the 1980s, he produced fakes of many artists such as Antoine-Louis Barye, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, and Aristide Maillol by creating aftercasts using silicon molds taken from existing works. Most notably, he secured permission from the Rudier family to use original Rodin molds for recasts, and then substituted the name of Alexis Rudier, Rodin’s official caster during the artist’s lifetime, for that of Georges Rudier, who made later editions. He flooded the market with several thousand sculptures that earned him $18 million and led to his arrest in 1992. In 1997, he was sentenced to four years in prison, and served eighteen months.280 After his release he continued with forgery and was arrested for a second time in 2002. His trial involved eleven hundred sculptures of ninety-eight French artists that were seized or cited. He again received a four-year sentence. An investigator who followed Hain’s career closely estimated that he produced six thousand sculptures beyond those taken into possession by authorities.281

Another major forger of sculptures is Robert Driessen, whose early career was spent making one thousand fake paintings of Hague School artists and noted Expressionists. In the 1980s, he turned to casting bronzes, using latex molds he had purchased, to produce the works of Degas, Rodin, Matisse, and others. In 1998, he began making Giacometti bronzes in images of his own design, partnering with dealer Herbert Schulte and front man Lothar Senke, aka the Count of Waldstein, in Germany for sales of more than $10 million.282 The false provenance included a limited-edition book bearing Waldstein’s name and claiming that Diego Giacometti had secretly produced casts of his brother’s models. After moving to Thailand (where he was free from ex-tradition) in 2005, Driessen continued producing Giacometti forgeries, and he has estimated his total output for ten years at thirteen hundred (a figure similar to police estimates). Senke and Schulte were arrested in 2009 for selling fraudulent art and received prison sentences of nine years and seven years, four months, respectively, along with heavy fines. In 2012, more than one thousand of Driessen’s Giacometti fakes had been located and destroyed.283 In 2014, he traveled to Europe, was caught, tried in Germany in 2015, and sentenced to five years and three months in prison. Since his release in 2017, he has made sculptures, drawings, and paintings under his own name.284

During a four-decade career as a forger in France, Eric Piedoie served prison sentences of ten months in 1985 for producing fakes of Chagall and Miró, and eighteen months in 1991 for fakes of Henri Michaux. He then turned to works by César (Baldaccini) and was warned by the artist to cease his counterfeiting activity. After César’s death in 1998, Piedoie flooded the market with César sculptures and drawings for two years, claiming later that in producing two thousand works he equaled the artist’s own output. Estimates for the value of those works run to about $20 million.285 In 2001, an investigation began, ending in a conviction in 2009 and carrying a four-year prison sentence for the forger, with three accomplices sentenced to three years, one year, and one year suspended.286 Today, Piedoie is an art dealer, and in 2019, he released his memoir, Confessions of a Forger: The Hidden Face of the Art Market (in French).287

Mexican ceramicist Brigido Lara produced thousands of individually fashioned clay figures that simulated Pre-Columbian styles, including Mayan, Aztec, and his specialty, Totonac. His works were sold as originals to tourists and collectors, with many reaching major art museums, among them the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as important collections in various European countries. Lara used wooden tools like those from centuries earlier and an assortment of clays taken from the locations where he claimed his fakes were discovered. After two decades at his craft, he was arrested in 1974 for trafficking in Pre-Columbian artifacts, and served seven months of a ten-year sentence before being allowed to prove by demonstration that he was an artist working as a copyist and not a smuggler. He was released and hired by the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology as a restorer and authenticator. Today, he works as a consultant as well as an artist making figures designated as copies.288

In the realm of fake prints, the Amiel family was responsible for placing an unspecified number on the market that reaches into the hundreds of thousands. In the 1970s, New York art publisher Leon Amiel, who knew Dalí, Picasso, and Miró personally, among other prominent artists, and produced prints legitimately for them, began mass-producing copies of their original lithographs. The reproductions, made on machinery capable of turning out thousands per hour, were sold to dealers who knew they were buying fakes.289 When Amiel died in 1988, his wife, Hilda, daughters Kathryn and Joanne, and granddaughter Sarina carried on the business until 1991, when federal agents arrested them and seized more than eighty thousand prints, mostly of Dalí and Miró but also including Picasso and Chagall. Hilda Amiel died before their trial in 1993, which resulted in prison sentences of seventy-eight months for Kathryn, forty-six months for Joanne, and thirty-three months for Sarina.

The Amiels’ conviction was a key piece in the US government’s Operation Bogart (for “bogus art”) that began in 1984 and eventually involved a number of dealers and auctioneers in several US cities with direct or indirect ties to the Amiels. Authorities estimated that in its entirety, the operation represented more than $500 million in sales of forgeries.290 One hundred thousand false artworks that were seized were destroyed (see Figure 1.9).291 In a related case nearly two decades later, Leon Amiel Jr. (Leon Sr.’s grandson) was arrested for selling prints from a supply of the family’s forgeries that had been overlooked by Bogart investigators. The sentencing judge in 2010 issued a two-year prison term, noting that Leon Jr. was “raised by criminals.”292


Figure 1.9. Postal Inspector Jack Ellis with prints from Operation Bogart. Courtesy of United States Postal Inspection Service

The printing process used by the Amiels was surpassed in technical quality with the invention of the giclée in the 1990s, in which a digital file controls a fine-spray inkjet application to paper or canvas.293 Kristine Eubanks produced thousands of giclées, which she passed off as original works by recognized artists such as Picasso, Dalí, and Chagall, mixing them with other fake prints and works in other mediums she purchased from suppliers, all of which were sold in television auctions she organized from 2002 through 2006 and on Princess Cruise ships.294 Eubanks’s husband, Gerald Sullivan, and auctioneer James Mobley were involved in the scheme, which also included false certificates of authenticity created by Eubanks along with shill bidding and fake ringing telephones on television. When many complaints surfaced about the authenticity of the artworks sold, the three co-conspirators were arrested and pleaded guilty. Sullivan was sentenced to four years in prison, and Mobley to five years. Eubanks, who at the time of her arrest was on probation for credit card fraud, received seven years. Total fraudulent income was estimated at $20 million taken from ten thousand buyers.295

Although lithographs and etchings are the types of prints most likely to be targeted by forgers, other types are subject to falsity as well. It has been reported that since 1998 as many as sixty thousand woodblock prints made by Earl Marshawn Washington have been sold in galleries and auctions for prices between $20 and several hundred dollars. The works are of high quality, with many depicting scenes from the lives of African Americans ranging from the Bible to lynchings to erotica. They are sold as the creations of Earl Mack Washington, the seller’s great-grandfather and master wood engraver and printer, giving them historical appeal. There is no evidence of the latter Washington’s existence. Although buyers who learned of the true nature of their prints have lodged complaints with police in Michigan (where Washington lives) and with the FBI, he has not been arrested.296

The advent of the Internet in the late twentieth century brought major changes to the buying and selling of art, including a proliferation of online sales through auctions. Forgers have capitalized on the fact that the art objects sold in this way are not available for potential buyers to examine directly, and that implausible claims about provenance and authenticity reach large enough numbers of interested parties that there may be some who believe them. An added factor is that shill bidding incognito can be done with the click of an electronic device. The eBay sales forum has been exploited often, although its administrators have taken various preventive measures.297 A significant case involved John Re, who in 2015 was convicted of wire fraud and tax evasion, carrying one prison sentence of five years and another of twenty-seven to eighty-four months, and with $2 million in restitution.298 Re was arrested in New York for an eBay enterprise in which he sold more than sixty fake Jackson Pollock paintings to four collectors for a total of $1.9 million. In all, the FBI connected him to 150 false works of Pollock and De Kooning and to shill bidding during auctions. He claimed the Pollocks came from a trove he discovered in the house of a widow whose husband acquired them from the artist. Forty-five paintings were examined and declared to be forgeries, based on stylistic features and scientific testing.299 Re was known to be an artist who painted in an abstract style, but he refused to admit to making the fakes he sold or to reveal another source.

Between 1998 and 2000, the California team of attorney Ken Walton and con man Ken Fetterman, with Scott Beach as a shill bidder, duped hundreds of art buyers on eBay for a total of $450,000 in eleven hundred auctions employing forty user IDs.300 Their modus operandi was to buy inexpensive paintings at flea markets and antique shops and present them with attractive descriptions suggesting the works might be by recognized artists. They often forged signatures and bid on their own auction items to drive up prices. Typically, their sales made high-percentage profits on small investments, such as $275 for $60 and $380 for $80, and on rare occasions prices reached the tens of thousands of dollars.301 When a painting that bidders took to be by Richard Diebenkorn sold for $135,000, the operation drew scrutiny and legal action. Fetterman was sentenced to forty-six months in prison. Walton and Beach avoided prison in return for their cooperation in the investigation of the case. The trio owed restitution that totaled $95,000,302 and Walton lost his license to practice law. He wrote a book, Fake: Forgery, Lies, and eBay, and became a successful software designer and entrepreneur, with a key project that developed a tool used by eBay for transparency in their sales.

Although the Internet provides a forum for forgers to exploit, it can also be their downfall. Information with the potential to identify fakes is available on the web and accessible immediately. In particular, duplicates of existing works are subject to being noticed on a gallery or auction website. New York gallery owner Eli Sakhai found that a scheme he worked successfully for nearly twenty years came undone by the art market’s practice of posting catalogs and images online. Sakhai attended auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s where he purchased minor paintings by major Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists and then had exact copies made by immigrant Chinese artists in a shop he set up directly above his business.303 The certificates of authenticity for the originals were attached to the fakes, and the works were sold in Asia (mostly Japan) for prices ranging from the tens of thousands of dollars to $500,000.304 After a waiting period of three or four years, the originals were sold at auction in London or New York with verification by specialists who were told the certificates of authenticity had been lost. Eventually, complaints arose about the discovery of duplicate paintings, and when a work by Gauguin was to be sold at Sotheby’s (the original) and Christie’s (the fake) at the same time, the trail was traced to Sakhai. On pleading guilty he was sentenced to forty-one months in prison and $12.5 million in restitution.305 Estimates for the number of false works put onto the market range from two hundred by an FBI expert to “hundreds” by a federal prosecutor.306

All of the forgers who have been discussed here have some degree of notoriety. There are others further down the scale of visibility whose stories failed to extend beyond a brief news cycle, or whose coverage was limited to one language, or for some other reason drew little attention. Cases such as the following serve as examples.

· Australia, 2007. Pamela and Ivan Liberto were sentenced to nine months in prison (with two years and three months suspended) for earning more than $300,000 selling paintings they had forged bearing the name of Rover Thomas, a noted Aboriginal artist.307

· Germany, 1992. Wolfgang Lämmle was discovered to have forged about two hundred paintings in the late 1980s imitating Egon Schiele and various twentieth-century German artists, with many of the works sold through leading galleries and auction houses. He was given a suspended sentence and required to pay $24,000 in compensation.308

· United States, 2016. Larry Ulvi was sentenced to a year in prison for defrauding twelve victims of $65,000 with fake paintings of Northwest School artists (mostly Mark Tobey). One hundred sixty artworks were confiscated from Ulvi’s apartment.309

· Russia, 2013. Alexander Chernov forged and sold over eight hundred paintings and graphics of Kazimir Malevich and other Russian avant-garde artists to two buyers for $600,000. He was sentenced to four years in prison.310

· Czech Republic, 2008. Libor Prášil was given a two-year suspended sentence for creating nearly fifty paintings in the style of Czech artist Jan Zrzavý. He claimed he had been paid small sums for the works without knowing they would be sold as originals. Dealer Jan Trojan, who sold the forgeries as part of a scheme involving 150 works in all imitating several artists, was sentenced in 2009 to seven and a half years in prison.311

· Finland, 2018. Members of a forgery ring were fined and sentenced to jail time for the distribution of more than two hundred fake canvases of Matisse, Monet, Kandinsky, Léger, and others valued at €15 million. The forger, Veli Seppä, was given a suspended sentence.312

· Switzerland, 2011. Three co-conspirators whose names were not published in the press were convicted of selling 120 fake paintings of artists such as Matisse, Braque, and Giacometti for $450,000. The forger was given a suspended sentence, and the two sellers each received eighteen months in prison.313

How many forgers like these exist, and how many forgeries they account for, can be no more than conjecture without an extensive search of journalistic and legal records in many countries. And even if those figures could be tallied through research, the presence of forgery in the art world would not be accounted for fully. There are remaining concerns that suggest it is more expansive yet, perhaps considerably so. How many forgers are there who have been discovered but not arrested, or if arrested not prosecuted, due to the often time-consuming and expensive process of gathering a solid case? Vernon Rapley, former head of the Art and Antiques Squad for New Scotland Yard, has estimated that a case of twenty fake artworks involving a forger and three accomplices will take about eight hundred hours of detective work, without accounting for the efforts of experts and prosecutors.314 And how many fake works have been created by known forgers beyond the ones they have admitted to or are suspected of? A partial answer to these questions lies with fraudulent art dealers caught selling fakes. There are many such dealers who could be revealed in a search paralleling that of obscure forgers, but they are unlikely to be forthcoming with information unless it secures them favorable treatment in legal proceedings. And beyond all of this potential information is the ultimate question of how many forgers, and how many fakes they have produced, have never been discovered and perhaps never will be.

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