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Ambitious, laborious, and nearly impossible to pull of without attracting plenty of suspicion from those in a position to know such things, art forgery occupies a strange corner of the white-collar crime world. The latest to learn this lesson the hard way is Glafira Rosales, a Long Island art dealer who appeared in court today after perpetrating fraudulent sales to the tune of—well, more than $80 million.

And it is a hard way to learn, really—Rosales has pleaded guilty to nine counts, including fraud, money laundering, and tax charges, The New York Times reports. Her maximum sentence, in an unlikely-but-not-impossible scenario, is 99 years. All for selling some art.

Here is how she did it: "some art," in this particular case, consisted of 63 or so paintings that Rosales sold for millions of dollars under the pretense that they were originals by such formidable twentieth-century figures as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell. In fact, they were not. They were painted by some unnamed (but "unusually talented"!) artist in a garage somewhere in Queens. This prolific maestro was paid just several thousand dollars per painting for his role, the Times reported in August. On the bright side, he hasn't been charged with any crime.

As for why she did it—that's tougher. Naturally, it seems ill-advised to falsify the works of artists that scholars and hobbyists alike have spent a lifetime studying, a lesson not so different from the one Jonah Lehrer learned when he fabricated Bob Dylan quotes.

But then, the risk is almost certainly part of the thrill, the pay-off is clearly tremendous, and in the strange, illusory sphere of art forgery, fabrication can take on a value of its. Consider the case of the notorious Elmyr de Hory, a prolific forger who was famously featured in Orson Welle's 1973 documentary F For Fake. His works of forgery became so famous—or infamous—that they began to command hefty prices on the market without any claim to fraudulent authorship. 

As Welles brags in the film, "What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I'm afraid the pompous word for that is 'art.'" In the meantime, Rosales will get her day in court.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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