Why So Many Art Forgers Want to Get Caught

History shows there's glory and money to be had from ripping off the works of great artists.

If you were a criminal, enjoying the lucrative fruits of your illicit labors and wishing to continue them, in secret, for as long as possible, I would recommend against buying an enormous submarine, showcasing it at a public marina and in a New York Times feature, and pimping it out to the tune of around $700,000 worth of interior design. Such activity is likely to raise eyebrows and questions, and it is the act of someone either very foolish and hubristic or, as is more likely in this case, someone who secretly wished to be caught.

Welcome to the case of American art forger John D. Re, recently convicted of fraud, having forged and sold scores of paintings, since 2005, ostensibly by the likes of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, for a total of around $1.9 million.

As a professor specializing in art crime, I’ve studied the cases of dozens of forgers whose careers span thousands of years, and I can conclude that Re is the first to have used his ill-gotten gains to buy a submarine.  This was not a very good idea on Mr. Re’s part, if he wished to continue his lucrative criminal career in secret. But my research into the minds of art forgers tells me that he very likely did not. For most known art forgers—from Michelangelo (yes, that Michelangelo) to Elmyr de Hory—triumph, fame, and fortune actually came after they were caught. In other words, psychological studies of art forgers indicate that many wish to be caught.

Set aside, for a moment, the fact that the victims of this fraud should really have known better than to buy Re’s story that he found a trove of Pollock paintings in the basement of an Easthampton home whose owner, conveniently, was dead. At least five different buyers, who have remained anonymous, purchased at least 70 paintings from Re since March 2005: For example, one collector bought 58 paintings, for a total of $519,890 and another bought 12 for $894,500. They should have inquired more deeply and only considered buying works with a strong provenance—the documented history of an artwork that attests to its legality and authenticity. They should have checked on Mr. Re, who was arrested in 1995 on suspicion of having run a counterfeit money operation via a home printing press—he pleaded guilty to one charge of possession of a forged instrument and ended up in prison. Not the sort of person from whom you should be buying famous artworks.

The victims should likewise have been suspicious about the price. That Re earned $1.9 million by selling forged paintings may sound like a lot of money, but how did the buyers convince themselves that the works were authentic, when they were paying in the thousands for artists whose works sell for over one-hundred million? Pollock’s No. 5 is the second most-expensive artwork ever sold, at $165.4 million, and de Kooning’s Woman III is the third, at $162.4 million. It suggests a good deal of naïve wishful thinking on the part of the buyers, to think works at such relatively low prices could be authentic, and similarly to believe a story of having found some 70 unknown paintings in a random Long Island basement. One collector bought 24 paintings that he thought were Pollocks, but paid $5000 or less for each of them.  The term caveat emptor, “buyer beware,” comes to mind.

The ostentatious submarine was not ultimately Re’s undoing, though his flamboyantly high profile suggests a level of hubris ill-advised for professional criminals who wish to remain under the radar (or perhaps, in this case, sonar).  He was finally found out because one of the buyers sent a purported Pollock for authentication and was told that it contained materials that had not yet been invented when Pollock was painting. In criminological parlance, these are referred to as “time bombs,” or anachronisms that can give away a forgery. The buyer then sent 45 paintings—all acquired from Re and supposedly made by Pollock—and received word that not one was authentic, all containing time bombs. This may seem like a careless error on Re’s part, or a brash assumption that no one would forensically examine his forgeries. But, in the case of quite a few famous forgers, these time bombs were knowingly inserted.

The majority of the hundred-odd forgers I’ve studied share a remarkably consistent motivational profile. Most began as failed artists, whose original works were somehow dismissed by the art world. They turned to forgery to act out a sort of passive-aggressive revenge against the art community, which they perceive as a collective entity that has conspired to deny their talent, and which they will “show up” by creating works that will be praised and accepted, as their originals were not. Passing off a forgery provides a two-fold sense of artistic fulfilment. On the one hand, if a forger’s work is taken to be that of a great master (Picasso, for example, who is the most-forged artist in history), then the forger considers that they are just as good as Picasso. On the other, the forger demonstrates the fallibility or foolishness of the so-called experts, who cannot tell their forgery from an original—the implication by extension being that these experts were foolish to dismiss the forger’s original creations in the first place.

But both of these victories are private. Unless the forgery is revealed as such then, for all intents and purposes, to the world at large, the work in question is authentic. It is only when the forger is caught and speaks out about his fraudulent oeuvre that the experts are shown to have erred, and the forger is praised publicly for his talent. Popular culture loves art forgers, seeing them as congenial, quirky pranksters more than criminals. To be fair, many are, and they are certainly less damnable than art thieves and antiquities looters, who have links to organized crime and even terrorism. Art forgers tend to work alone or in pairs (a forger and a front man who passes off the works as authentic through one of a series of confidence tricks, usually far more ingenious than Mr. Re’s superficial story about stumbling across 70 abstract expressionist masterpieces).

Without the connections to organized crime, art forgers rarely wreak havoc beyond their immediate victims (wealthy collectors or institutions), and their income does not fund the drug and arms trades, as can be the case with stolen and looted art. Their relative harmlessness, on the grand scale of criminal activity, and their undoubted ingenuity and occasional real talent, makes it easy for the general public to see them as admirable, Robin-Hood types, pulling the wool over the eyes of the wealthy elite (with the implication that the wealthy elite deserve to have their wool pulled by a working-class prankster).

Numerous forgers have gone on to achieve riches and fame after serving a minimal prison sentence. Wolfgang Beltracchi has best-selling memoirs and is a sought-after speaker. John Myatt has his own TV series on Sky Arts in which he teaches amateur painters how to forge, and George Clooney bought the film rights to his life story—he now sells “original fakes,” signed with his name but in the style of famous artists, for six figures. This type of crime, it seems, can pay.

With little disincentive, in terms of harsh sentences and public condemnation even if you are caught, and with a measure of personal revenge successful only if you are caught, it stands to reason that some forgers would not mind going public, while others, even if at a subconscious level, might actually wish to be found out. Many have intentionally come forward. Michelangelo allowed his biographer to tell the story of his teenage career as a forger of “ancient Roman” statues, which sold for much more than his originals would, before he had made a name for himself by sculpting his Pieta.

Ken Perenyi recently released a fine memoir, Caveat Emptor, that describes his decades-long career as a forger. Before his book came out, few had heard of him; suddenly he was profiled in The New York Times as perhaps America’s greatest forger. The Santa Clausian British forger, Tom Keating, coined the term “time bombs” and inserted them intentionally (such as the use of titanium white pigment in works purported to have been painted centuries before it was invented) for several reasons: to have something obvious to point to that experts missed (so as to show them up), to (unsuccessfully) protect himself against accusations of fraud (he assumed that such an obvious anachronism would shift the blame away from him and onto the authenticator for making such an error), and in order to be able to reveal himself as the artist, should he wish to do so.

Like John Myatt, he was awarded with a popular TV series on ITV in Britain, in which he forged on-camera. Icilio Federico Joni fooled the greatest connoisseur of Renaissance art, Bernard Berenson. Rather than being upset, Berenson determined to meet the artist whose “Sienese Gothic” altarpiece had taken him in, and the two became friendly. Joni took to intentionally planting his latest forgery so that Berenson would be called in to authenticate it.

And the German post-war forger Lothar Malskat was outraged when no one believed that he had painted what seemed to be newly discovered medieval frescoes in a German church.  Even when he pointed out the time bombs he had inserted (a painting of a turkey which, being indigenous to North America, had not been seen in Europe in the Middle Ages, and a portrait of Marlene Dietrich, who definitely had not been seen in Europe in the Middle Ages), no one believed him. So he took the dramatic step of suing himself, in order to have the public courtroom stage in which to demonstrate that the frescoes were indeed his own, and not centuries-old.

Until he comes out with a memoir, or some equivalent, we will not know for certain whether John Re fits into this psychological profile of so many of history’s most successful art forgers. But his conspicuous consumption, particularly involving his submarine (which was written up in 2007 in The New York Times, under the headline “A Sea Toy James Bond Would Envy”), suggests that he was either foolhardy or, at some level, was willing to be caught.  For only then could this part-time painter, who liked to dabble in the abstract expressionist style, achieve recognition for having fooled a number of collectors who genuinely thought that he painted as well as Pollock.