“I gave a picture to a museum in the memory of my father which I hoped would please Mother. Everyone was so nice that I was soon to get into the habit of donating pictures to museums. Being treated so nicely by people was something I was unfamiliar with and I liked it very much.”
—Mark Landis 2013
Mark Landis may be the most famous art counterfeiter who never committed a crime. He does not fit the standard profile of charlatan working for material gain, or embittered artist seeking to punish a world which failed to appreciate him. Rather, for the past 30 years Landis has approached dozens of museums and university galleries in multiple states claiming to be a wealthy philanthropist with a collection he wished to donate in honor of his deceased parents. He has gone to odd lengths to perpetuate this fantasy to give away his fakes, not only falsifying documents and using aliases, but also dressing in costume.
Suffering from mental illness, Landis’ actions are apparently fueled by the need for attention and validation. Landis was diagnosed a schizophrenic at age 17, although caseworkers have recently suggested bipolar disorder may be a more appropriate diagnosis. Landis cannot understand why museums are upset with his “hobby.” He claims his donations are a tribute to his deceased parents and are acts of good will. He has at times promised to stop his museum “donations,” but it is not clear if he can control his compulsions. His age and declining health limit his mobility, so it is likely his spree has come to an end.
Right: Lavalette / The New Yorker. © Condé Nast.
|1955||Born in Norfolk, Virginia.|
|1955-1968||Spends much of his youth moving all over the world due to his father’s career as an Admiral in the US Navy.|
|1970||Relocates with his family to Jackson, Mississippi, when his father retires.|
|1972||At age 17, suffers a nervous breakdown after his father dies. Admitted to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Art therapy reveals he has artistic talent for copying.|
|1974||Enrolls at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Plans to study art, then switches to photography, but withdraws after becoming disillusioned.|
|1976-1977||Transfers to the San Francisco Art Institute, where he is unhappy with the focus on abstract art. Leaves school and opens a small art gallery in San Francisco, with limited success.|
|1985||Makes first donation of a forgery.|
|1988||Returns to his mother’s home in Laurel, Mississippi, after his gallery fails. Donates a fake painting to a museum in memory of his father and shows the appreciative letter he receives from the museum to his mother, who is duly impressed.|
|1985-1998||Travels to museums donating fake works of art he copies from art history books and auction catalogues. Enjoys the sense of importance he gets at museum receptions. Embellishes his cover story, and dresses as a priest to enhance his credibility.|
|1992||Suffers a second nervous breakdown and lives on disability payments. After recovering, he briefly attends the University of Southern Mississippi to study economics. Does not give away any art for several years.|
|1992-2008||Resumes producing fakes and donating them to museums, non-profit groups and university galleries across the US. Grows careless in his technique and storytelling. A registrar exposes his scheme to the museum community in 2008.|
|2010||Output of fakes increases after his mother‘s death. The art media reports on his prolific antics. The FBI becomes aware of his activities, but does not file charges because no money changed hands.|
|2012||An exhibition about Landis, Faux Real, opens at the University of Cincinnati. Makes donations to several museums under yet another alias, but due to failing health, these will likely be his last.|
|2013||An exposé on Landis appears in The New Yorker magazine.|
|2014||Art and Craft, a documentary about Landis, will have its film festival premiere in 2014.|
The FBI and state police are aware of Landis’ activities, but have not pressed charges. Though he had intent to deceive, Landis technically did not commit fraud because it is arguable whether the institutions he gave the fakes to were financially injured. Landis did not benefit monetarily from his donations; he never received payment and did not claim a tax deduction for his gifts.
Several circumstances account for the longevity of his illicit career. Landis usually mimicked lesser known artists with whom museum staff may have had little familiarity. Museums also tend to use less scrutiny when gifted a work as opposed to purchasing one. Furthermore, it is the donor’s responsibility, not the museum’s, to attest to an artwork’s provenance.
Museums tricked by Landis may have suffered a loss to their collection integrity. Some took Landis at face value, gratefully accepted his donations, and exhibited the new artwork. Presenting inauthentic artwork to the public gravely undermines the mission of a museum to preserve our cultural heritage. In addition, victims have expended considerable time and resources as a result of his visits—analyzing the spurious works, assessing if more works compromised their collection, and paying for legal advice.
Landis did not use sophisticated techniques to fool experts. He relied on plain canvas and paper purchased at his local craft store, and “aged” his works simply by staining them with tea or washing them with light brown pigment. He often used inadequate art supplies and bought cheap frames at discount stores, smearing them with gesso and distressing them with a file to make them appear older. Landis made his works more believable by forging auction receipts and labels that he affixed to the back of his works. But his greatest gimmick was his “act”—his cover story, verbal patter, and costume—a philanthropist-priest who would like to donate an artwork to honor a deceased parent.
With time, Landis grew careless with both his stories and forgeries. A staff member at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art noticed a pattern of odd donations and suspected they were being made by the same person under a series of aliases. Placed under a microscope, Landis’ painting revealed the presence of pixels, a telltale sign of painting over a digital image. Landis admitted that later in his career his technique was copy and paste an image from a catalogue to a board or canvas, and paint over it.
Purple Parrot Films, LLC
Directed and produced by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman
Edited by Mark Becker
2012, 2 minutes 53 seconds
In this film excerpt, Intent to Deceive curator Colette Loll interviews Mark Landis in his home in Louisiana where he shows her a collection of fakes he has produced and tries to explain his “hobby.” It is an intimate look into the troubled psyche of a man battling mental illness and a compulsive disorder.
Mark Landis visited the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette, Louisiana, dressed as Father Arthur Scott and claiming he wished to donate a painting in honor of his deceased mother. The painting was Three Women (Fig. 1) by 19th century artist Charles Courtney Curran. Landis submitted as provenance a copy of a Sotheby’s sales catalogue from the year 2000 showing the work had sold for $98,500. Landis’ discomfort talking about his activities as a priest and lack of substantial provenance made museum staff suspicious.
When museum staff inspected the painting, they noticed the use of a ballpoint pen and what appeared to be an underlying inkjet printer label, materials clearly inconsistent with the supposed time period of the painting. In addition, under ultraviolet light, fluoresced areas of the painting signified that new paint had been used. When the painting was examined by microscope, digitized pixels appeared under the paint layer (Figs. 2, 3, and 4), clearly indicating the painting was a fake. Museum staff alerted colleagues about the fraudulent donation and the story was carried in The New York Times and The Art Newspaper.
Article: The Giveaway
By Alec Wilkinson, staff writer for The New Yorker
This seasoned writer on the staff of The New Yorker since 1980, offers a descriptive account of the lengthy career of forger Mark Landis and unique insights into the psyche of this mysterious “philanthropist.”
A Personal View: Faux Real: Mark Augustus Landis
By Matthew C. Leininger, former Curatorial Department Head at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Mr. Leininger details the five years he spent tracking Mark Landis’ bizarre and unusual habit of donating forgeries to museums.