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ELMYR DE HORY
HAN VAN MEEGEREN
So You Want to Be an Art Forger?
Or maybe you just like reading about them. Either way, San Francisco contributor Jonathon Keats offers gossip—and potential career pointers—in his new book, Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age (Oxford).
San Francisco Magazine | Photo: Courtesy of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Mark Forgy, John Brandler Galleries (Brentwood), and Kenneth Walton | January 31, 2013
Your motivation: Greed
Your role model: Elmyr de Hory (1906–1976)
The hoax: De Hory, who studied painting in Picasso- and Matisse-era Paris, found an outlet for his skills in the ’50s and ’60s as prices for those artists soared.
How he got away with it: Well dressed and monocled, de Hory claimed to be a Hungarian aristocrat whose family had lost all but a few artworks in World War II. It was those works, ostensibly smuggled out of the country, that he offered for sale.
His downfall: He outsourced sales to other con men, who sold fakes to a Texas oilman and kept the money.
Your motivation: Nostalgia
Your role model: Tom Keating (1917–1984)
The hoax: Some 150 years after an eccentric Brit named Samuel Palmer obsessively depicted the English landscape in drawings and watercolors, Keating—frequently drunk and imagining that he was channeling Palmer’s spirit—churned out hundreds of fakes on antique paper.
How he got away with it: Because Keating didn’t care about making money, he gave many of the paintings to friends or put them into rural auctions, where they sometimes sold for mere shillings.
His downfall: Eventually, there were so many newly discovered Palmers in circulation that connoisseurs couldn’t help noticing. Alerted to the situation, the Times of London tracked down Keating, who denied nothing (and got his own TV show into the bargain).
Your motivation: A need to be loved
Your role model: Han van Meegeren (1889–1947)
The hoax: In WWII Holland, Hitler’s voracious appetite for art—especially Vermeers—put the Dutch patrimony at risk. Van Meegeren exploited the situation by faking Flemish masterpieces and “patriotically” selling them to Dutch museums instead of the Nazis.
How he got away with it: An eminent Dutch scholar believed that Vermeer had gone through a biblical phase, but that all those works had been lost. When van Meegeren “found” such a painting, the gullible scholar eagerly authenticated it.
His downfall: After the war, van Meegeren was tried for selling a Dutch national treasure to Hermann Göring. The artist saved his skin—and became a folk hero—by revealing that Göring’s Vermeer was fake.
Your motivation: Boredom
Your role model: Kenneth Walton (1967–)
The hoax: Walton—a lawyer by day—and a buddy sold junk-shop finds on eBay as rediscovered masterpieces.
How he got away with it: Walton and his pal would add a famous artist’s initials to a canvas and then play dumb, bidding up each other’s paintings under multiple aliases until collectors got in on the action.
His downfall: When a “Diebenkorn” (“found” at a Berkeley garage sale “a looong time ago”) went for a stunning $135,800, the FBI stepped in. After serving nine months of probation, Walton found a new career producing software to make eBay bidding easier.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of San Francisco.