FAUX REAL: MARK AUGUSTUS LANDIS

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By Matthew C. Leininger, former Curatorial Department Head at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art

Having been in the museum realm for close to twenty years wearing many hats as a registrar, curator, and department head, I never thought I would be using my education holding a Bachelors and Masters degree in the Fine Arts to be the one to discover and made public, this bizarre case of Mark  Augustus Landis. I remember the day I began tracking Landis and informing my peers on August 7, 2008. Landis has been making and gifting forgeries for over thirty years with nothing, other than catered to, in exchange.

This is how he does it, no and I don’t mean making the forgeries but making others believe what they are gifted is authentic.  Landis pays his own travel, lodging, meals, etc. and I do not know his wealth or how he could make his travels over the years. That was not a concern to me. My biggest concern was who is this guy and why has he done this? Institutions provide lunch or carte blanche in their stores, but the story is the same.  They get a letter in the mail of a promised gift of art and then it shows up via FedEx or in person, as he did while I was in Oklahoma City, along with a photocopy of an auction catalogue entry for provenance reasons showing he was the owner. Then Landis promises more gifts of art and money to care for the collections but will get in touch when he recovers from heart surgery. He has been telling the same story for a long time, until I made the discovery.

FAUX Real or should I say FOR Real? Faux meaning fake or false or For real… being you have got to be kidding me or make you think, what seriously? Some known art forgers have turned to forgery for psychological and financial reasons.  But money was not a factor in the scheme of Mark Landis, aka Steven Gardiner, aka Father Arthur Scott, aka Father James Brantley and aka Marc Lanois, when he showed up at Loyola University in New Orleans in February of 2012. The interesting thing with the now fourth alias at Loyola, is that Landis had presented himself as Landis at Loyola ten years earlier, and had gifted the institution ten forgeries: all paintings that he had created, and which he passed off as valuable originals. But he accepted no money for these gifts, not even a tax break. His only prize was personal enjoyment in being catered to by the art world, that his own works were being accepted into established collections and lauded as originals, gifted in his parents’ memories. As Landis told me personally after this was all brought to light to the public, he was never in it to hurt anyone or reputations, but enjoyed being treated nice and catered to as a philanthropist of art.

Mark Landis may be the most infamous and prolific art forger who has never committed a crime. But forgery and fraud are outright lies that hurt others, even if there is no financial gain or loss, fraud is fraud and a forgery is a fake. Landis, now in his fifties, is a painter and former supposed gallery owner, and a most unusual type of person—one who has yet to break a law, and as I mentioned, gained financially. He has told me that he has training from the San Francisco Art Institute and has a love for drawing and painting from a young age when he traveled over the world with his mom and dad while his dad was in the Navy. When he arrived at the Hilliard University Art Museum in Louisiana, driving a large red Cadillac that had belonged to his mother, Jonita Joyce Brantley, formerly of Laurel, Mississippi, he introduced himself as Father Arthur Scott. He was dressed in a black suit, with a Jesuit pin on his lapel.[1] He was carrying a painting that he intended to gift to the museum in memory of his mother, whom he told the staff was ‘Helen Mitchell Scott’, who he said was a Louisiana native. The painting was by American Impressionist Charles Courtney Curran. Under his first alias, Steven Gardiner, he gifted in honor of his mother ‘Joan Greene Gardiner’ a drawing supposedly by Jean-Antoine Watteau, as well as the same Curran forgery to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in 2009. The Curran painting looked authentic right off the bat. It bore a weathered label of a defunct New York art gallery on the verso. Since it was unframed, Father Scott (Landis’) offered to pay for the frame, and also suggested that he might consider donating more paintings from his family’s collection. The only flicker of suspicion came when a museum employee began to chat with Father Scott about possible mutual acquaintances in the nearby Catholic community, at which point the ‘priest’ seemed to grow nervous and claimed “I travel a lot,” to cover for his inability to recognize local names.

Landis was very close to his dad Lt. Cmdr. Arthur Landis, Jr. and even closer his late mother Jonita Joyce Brantley as she did remarry when Landis’ father passed. When I met Landis for the first time, not only did he show the love of art but the love of his family, mainly ‘mother’ as he always referred. So in creating these fakes he thought he was making pretty pictures to impress his mom and gifting them to institutions in her name and his father’s name. And now that Landis brings his family into his scam by changing their names, not legally but verbally when the gifts are made, is this truly honoring his parents?

Mark Landis, in the guise of Father Scott among others, has spent decades creating forgeries and gifting them to museums.  He crafted meticulous back-stories for his own alter egos, and for the works that supposedly came from his family’s collection.  He never accepted any money for his paintings, even turning down the chance to swap the donated paintings for tax write-offs, and so for some time it was unclear as to whether Landis was actually breaking any laws. He was never legally caught since he gave only fake addresses and names with people in society believing Landis said he was who he was and the gifts were authentic. As far as I know, he last tried to donate a painting in November 2010, when he presented himself, and a forged drawing, to the Ackland Art Museum in North Carolina, again in the guise of Father Scott. That same month The Art Newspaper broke the story about Landis and his scheme, after having contacted me knowing I had been tracking Landis, also ran a photograph of him.[2] The Art Newspaper was the first of many media outlets to contact me about this case.  I did not seek the media; they sought me and this story as a social interest piece to help me educate the public, which has been my mission with Landis.

I have been tracking Landis ever since 2008, when Landis (using his own name) offered to give several artworks to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, where I worked at the time as Curatorial Department Head. I still cultivate a dossier of Landis’ contacts, sightings, and forged works. The earliest donation of a fake by Landis in my dossier dates to 1985, when many of his forgeries were given to the DeGrummond Libraries at the University of Southern Mississippi which included drawings by Dr. Seuss. The next is from 1987 when a work of his, a supposed watercolor by Marie Laurencin was given to the New Orleans Museum of Art. I have tracked Landis’ travels through 20 states thus far and have linked him to over 50 institutions including the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Landis went quiet after the publication of The Art Newspaper article in 2010. It appeared that the publicity might have scared him and stopped him. But on the twenty fifth of July 2011 I received an email from the principal of Cabrini High School in New Orleans. It seemed that a Father James Brantley, who looked remarkably like Landis, had donated an oil-on-copper painting, Holy Family with Saint Anne ostensibly by 16th century painter Hans van Aachen. The principal had become suspicious and contacted me as I had become the authority for all things Landis. Later after reviewing his mother’s obituary from April 2010, I found that James Brantley was the name of Mark Landis’ step-father, and all signs suggested that the painting was a forgery. It seemed that Landis was still operating but now under another alias.

Shortly after the Cabrini caper, I received a call, from Georgia’s Brenau University. A Father James Brantley had donated several pictures to the university, including a drawing attributed to Edith Head, as well as promising a $100,000 donation to endow the collection. I emailed Landis anonymously to inform him that I was aware of his continued activities and new name. Landis did not respond, but the Father James Brantley sightings abruptly ceased until February of 2012, when he came out under his fourth alias, Marc Lanois. I was contacted by a curator in Muncie, Indiana, where she told me that the forger was now operating as Marc Lanois, and had gifted another forgery to Loyola University in New Orleans. What is strange is that Landis had been at Loyola ten years earlier, gifting the school ten works under the name Mark Landis. After a decade of exhausting three aliases, he returned to deceive the university once again, using a new alias.

The works Landis created were good enough stylistically to fool a person at first glance. He used detail elements, like the worn label on the back of the fake Curran, to pass initial examination, but not close scrutiny. The Hilliard University Art Museum discovered that they had been given a fake within hours when examining the painting under a microscope and ultraviolet light. The first work I examined in August of 2008 was a watercolor by Paul Signac, in which the same piece was released to the press, as a gift from Mark Landis, to the Savannah College of Art and Design. Later, I found this same watercolor in other museums. This was also the case with the other forgeries that the Oklahoma City Museum of Art had been gifted that I also found in other museums while doing my research.

According to John Gapper, who investigated Landis for the Financial Times article, Landis explained his preferred method as follows: he would go to Home Depot, spend approximately $6 on three boards cut to the desired size, and paste digital reproductions of the works he planned to copy onto the boards. He would paint directly onto the digital reproductions and give the works the appearance of age by scuffing the surfaces slightly, distress the paper and boards and in some instances stain them with coffee. His goal was only to gift his creations in his parents honor and institutions accepted the work into their collections. Once the work was part of the collection and Landis had left the scene, he did not seem to mind if the work was found to be fake. His lack of concern with details shows his disinterest in the lasting effect of his fraud.  Landis himself stated to me that his rationale for perpetrating this unusual scheme was that “Everyone likes to be treated nice.”

The financial gains aside, forgers often seek to fool the art community as revenge for having dismissed their own, original creations. The art community, its scholars, collectors, curators, and salesmen, have proven themselves a forger’s best ally and worst enemy as the professionals do not want to admit they have been duped.

Before monetary profit enters the thoughts of a forger for their gain, the only benefit for the professional in the collecting field is disproving the “discovery” of a new, potentially valuable work that comes on the market. This holds little sway when thousands, and occasionally millions, are at stake, should the new work be deemed authentic. What if it is deemed an original? Everyone benefits. The owner of the object now possesses a great treasure, to keep or sell for huge profit. The auction house, gallery owner, or other middle man selling the piece gains its commission. The new buyer be it a museum or private collector, gains a rare trophy. Scholars are privy to a new object to study, adding to their body of extant works and the knowledge amassed from them. The media can report on a great story, that there are hidden treasures among us, there for anyone to find. The collective wishful thinking of the art world unconsciously conspires to affirm the authenticity of newly-discovered works.

Museums rely on gifts to fill their walls since many museums have little funds for acquisitions—most of the Baroque art at London’s National Gallery, for instance, is owned by Sir Dennis Mahon, and the works are displayed on loan thanks to his beneficence. The phrase “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” takes on a new meaning. It would shatter the delicate reliance museums have on donors and supporters if they were to look too closely and, heaven forbid, discover something wrong with the gift offered and accepted.

By creating a work of your own which exhibits your artistic skill to have it mistaken for the work of an acknowledged master, the revenge is two-fold. First, it demonstrates that the forger’s ability level is comparable to that of the famous master whose work has been copied. Second, it undermines the so-called “experts” who dismissed the scammer’s original work in the first place. Of course it undermines the experts privately—until the fake is revealed, in which case even the capture of the forger can underscore the mind behind the scheme and make them feel a victor. For when the forger is caught and his masterpieces come to light, the experts he was out to trick are shown publicly to have been fooled.

In Landis’ case, we do not know the origin of his unusual habit of donating forgeries. He was a diffident, artistic child who was diagnosed at age 17 with schizophrenia and institutionalized for eighteen months.[3] He studied photography in Chicago before becoming an art dealer in San Francisco.

John Gapper, writing for Financial Times, located Landis shortly after The New York Times reported that Landis “seems to have disappeared altogether.” Gapper simply drove to the gated community where Landis’ mother had lived and asked the estate manager where to find Landis.  According to Gapper, the manager shared Landis lived with his mother in an apartment. His, or should I say “mother’s”, red Cadillac was parked outside, and Gapper heard music coming from inside the apartment. He knocked, but Landis did not answer. A week later, Landis phoned Gapper and invited him to visit and Gapper returned to Louisiana to spend a day with Landis in his apartment. As an apology for not having opened the door when Gapper first knocked, Landis gave him a painting he had designed and completed of Joan of Arc, signed with his own name. He ended the meeting with a request; “See if you can smooth things over for me.  Tell them I’m not a bad guy.  I’m awful sorry if I caused them any trouble.”[4]

Landis’ fakes would likely fail to stand up to scrutiny in an open-market situation. It is the confidence of gifting his forgeries gaining no financial advantage in addition to playing on the reliance of museums on donations that makes the trick so successful.

To be charged with fraud, a victim has to suffer a loss.  Mark Landis is still out there having successfully perpetrated a very bizarre forgery scheme for over thirty years with no financial gain.

 


Matthew C. Leininger’s Biography

Matthew C. Leininger, a museum professional with over 15 years of experience as a registrar, singlehandedly investigated and solved the strange case of Mark Augustus Landis—uncovering his art forgeries, multiple identities, and national donations of fake masterpieces. Leininger earned a BA from Wright State University and an MFA in Printmaking from Ohio University, becoming the Curatorial Department Head at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and then Chief Registrar at the Cincinnati Art Museum. He now works with nationally respected NAVIS Pack and Ship. Leininger spent five years tracking Landis, and shared his findings with the public in 2010, resulting in media attention from The Art Newspaper, The Guardian (London), The New York Times, Financial Times, Maxim, CBS Sunday Morning, in addition to other international social media outlets and publications. An Emmy and Oscar-nominated film company has interviewed Leininger for an exclusive documentary regarding the case. Leininger lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and uses his acquired knowledge of fakes and to help stop other forgers.

Endnotes

[1] The best four summaries of the case appear in The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/12/arts/design/12fraud.html?pagewanted=all), The Art Newspaper (http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/%E2%80%9CJesuit-priest-donates-fraudulent-works/21787), the Financial Times (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/5905c640-2359-11e0-8389-00144feab49a.html#axzz1iaLh3QxA), and Maxim (http://www.maxim.com/amg/STUFF/Articles/Art+Forger+Mark+Landis), and it is largely on these articles that this section is drawn.

[2] http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/%E2%80%9CJesuit-priest-donates-fraudulent-works/21787 accessed 5 January 2012.

[3] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/5905c640-2359-11e0-8389-00144feab49a.html#axzz1iaLh3QxA, accessed 5 January 2012.

[4] Ibid.