Why I Bought Art From One Of America’s Most Prolific Forgers

August 18, 2015
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I first heard about Mark Landis late last year while listening to Minnesota Public Radio. Landis had then recently gained notoriety as one of America’s most prolific art forgers. His story, after his forgeries were finally discovered in 2008, was the subject of a much-lauded documentary called Art and Craft. It’s well worth your time if you haven’t seen it.

Landis’s story isn’t quite what you’d expect.

For nearly 30 years, Landis “donated” a litany of paintings, drawings, and other works of art to institutions around the country. Each one was a forgery that Landis had created, and for decades nobody caught on. Churches, university galleries and, amazingly, nearly 60 museums graciously accepted them.

Even though Landis’ works were very convincing, the forgeries weren’t spot-on copies. Landis would create them using supplies he picked up at a local hobby store while sitting at the end of his bed in a cramped apartment, watching TV. The New York Times offered a comparison of some of his forgeries.

Landis was able to fly under the radar by copying works of lesser-known artists, forging supporting documents, and because the receiving organizations apparently did not verify donated pieces with the same rigor as those they purchased. He also dressed in costume — often as a Jesuit priest — and used aliases while making donations in person. Together his story, appearance, and work were very convincing.

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Mark Landis

The most surprising—and I think endearing—part of the story is that Landis never committed a crime because he didn’t make a single cent during his three decades of passing forged art. Instead, he merely donated the works as a philanthropic gesture and apparently to receive validation for himself.

So why am I recounting a story told far and wide by every news outlet you can name?

Well, my wife and I became fascinated by Landis’s story after watching Art and Craft earlier this year. We started poking around the interwebs and discovered that, in response to his new-found fame, he is now painting original commissioned works for a relatively low price. All it takes is an emailed photo and a few months later you’ll get back a Landis original. Go figure. It took us somewhere between seven and nine seconds to decide we had to do it. At worst we’d be out a few hundred bucks.

We emailed a couple photos and asked him to surprise us with his choice. This past weekend we received our painting, tore through the packaging, and we were thrilled to see which photo he chose and the painting itself.

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Now we’re just waiting to get the painting back from the frame shop!