In 2011 sales in the Global Art Market reached 64.1 billion dollars, a mere 1.7 billion off from its record high in 2007. In a market as powerful and valuable as the art market there are bound to be people doing anything they can to get their piece of the billion dollar pie. Forgery is one of the ways that many people try to get their share of the 64 billion dollars. Forgery is defined as the production of a spurious work that is claimed to be genuine, as a coin, a painting or the like. Simply put forgery is the opposite of plagiarism or claiming someone’s work as your own, it is claiming that your original work is actually the work of someone else.
Forgery is not a small scale crime but a global one. Some estimates put the number of forgeries at almost half of all art on the international market. Forgery is a crime and I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who would argue against that sentiment. There is however one man who has turned forgery on its head and has caused even the strictest of art aficionados to question their firm held beliefs on forgery. Mark Landis is an American artist from Laurel, Mississippi. He spent nearly thirty years of his life creating amazingly accurate forgeries of famous works of art. He managed to slip forgeries past 46 museums in the United States including 20 different states. The thing that makes Landis interesting however, is not his formidable talent but his donation of the forged works. Landis spent countless hours and years creating amazing forgeries to give to museums for nothing in return. Landis is definitely an outlier in the business of forgery and to understand his motives it is imperative we get at least a cursory understanding of the man behind the art.
He grew up in Europe and visited countless museums in his early years. Early on he became captivated by catalogs and information about museum collections. It wasn’t long before he began copying them for fun. In his own words, Landis’ first donated forgery started as an impulse. The forgery was a copy of a work by Maynard Dixon. After the first forgery was well received, Landis saw his donations as a way to earn respect and deference with little harm to anyone else. Landis created the forgeries in relatively short amounts of time and used cheap materials to get the job done. The way he saw it, “All that really counts is what it looks like. You know, when you go to a museum, you don’t put it under one of those giant microscopes that they have down in the basement.” Landis was aware of the risks of being caught and used many aliases during his 30 year art forging career. Some of his aliases include: Father Arthur Scott, Father James Brantley, Mark Lanois, Stephen Gardiner. Although Landis did foresee that he could potentially be caught he had little fear of the consequences. In his own words, Landis didn’t think about the legal consequences for his actions and considered a reprimand to be the most likely punishment.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Landis was caught. He was caught by Matthew Leininger, the registrar at the Oklahoma Museum of Art. Leininger became suspicious of Landis’ donations and soon began his research. Leininger quickly discovered that Landis had donated the same pieces of art to several different institutions. Now, Landis has stopped his forgeries, but he has not stopped his art. These days, Landis paints portraits and other works upon request. No one would argue that Landis wasn’t committing forgery. The question is should there be punishment and if so how severe that punishment should be? One could argue that no one was harmed by his forgeries, no money was lost and no money was gained. If anything his forgeries created a minor inconvenience. His forgeries might have in fact exposed the public to greater culture, if not true culture at least a replica of something they might never have seen. Still others might argue for the moral integrity that was violated in Landis’ creation of the forgeries. By forging these works Landis was essentially lying to the public and to the art world and maybe there should be some retribution for that betrayal. Ultimately, Landis remains free and unprosecuted. His forgeries have been removed from museums with no major harm done. For now at least, it seems that the art world and the public at large are willing to forgive forgery if money is not involved.