Artnome's goal is to create a single database of known works spanning our greatest artists. Forgery is the greatest threat to that effort. The letter below is to the living art forgers both active and reformed. I address three well known art forgers whom I have tried to reach out to via email in the first half of the letter.
Dear art forgers,
John Myatt has said to fake an artist’s work, you “need to love him." I believe this is true and it is the core of my appeal. Like you, I spent many hours of my youth in the studio dreaming of being a great artist someday. Having carefully read your biographies, I believe you, like me, looked up to the great artists and saw them as role models, heroes, and teachers. The practice of copying the masters is a longstanding part of artistic apprenticeship. In his famous letters, Van Gogh wrote enthusiastically about acquiring prints from the masters to learn from and to be inspired by. Not much changed from Van Gogh’s day to ours. We found inspiration in books with small printed reproductions providing a limited glimpse into the works of our idols. In the last two decades all that has changed. With the internet, it is now possible to build a complete database of known works across all of our greatest artists, and make them broadly available and deeply searchable. The problem of accessibility is now solvable, but the problems of attribution, authentication, credibility, and completeness require your help.
The nature of your forgeries makes it difficult to accurately estimate their impact. However, if we generously assume there are 500 artists whom are profitable to forge, and artists on average create fewer than 1,000 paintings, we are looking at a world of 500,000 paintings. If we then assume forgers are equally prolific, and there are at least 100 forgers historically talented enough to consistently deceive us (I mention 17 in this article alone), we are looking at 100,000 forgeries in circulation. That is one forgery for every five authentic works. While shocking, my estimate aligns with popular estimates, and I may even be more on the conservative side. This is a death by a thousand cuts, perhaps unintended by any single forger, whose motive is more typically aimed at personal profit at the expense of the business side of the art world, not art history itself.
Ken, thank you for taking the time to respond to my email back in 2015. You told me I was talking to the wrong person as you have “always looked at the art market as fair game, a contest of wits with the experts.” It’s the nature of forgery that if the experts have been fooled by you, they do not know it. It is the would-be artists, the modern versions of your younger selves, who are the ones who miss out. The damage is not merely mistaking your works for those of other artists, but the accumulative erosion of a credible artistic record of our most important cultural objects: our art.
You shared with me, “One day I intend to publish my own catalog raisonne that will answer many questions.” I applaud that approach and hope that others take note and follow suit. I can understand not wanting to anger people by calling out the fakes in their museums, catalogues, and collections, but I do hope you have brought the same level of detail and attention to your CR as you have to your forgeries.
John, there are over 120 of your paintings out in the wild. You have said that you do not intend to disclose these works as you could never be “100% sure” and you “can’t see who would gain.” You also claim that we have “no idea how much the look of a painting or a drawing or a watercolour can change just by being reframed,” the great irony being that your superpower is to see paintings so clearly that you can replicate them beyond the detection of others. Surely someone with your sophisticated eye could identify their own work regardless of the frame.
I understand that it is likely not a place you want to go. Please reconsider; the world has been good to you and given you a great second act as one of your country’s “fastest selling artists” and the subject of an upcoming Hollywood movie. Any chance of knowing where those paintings are (it needn’t be 100%) lies with you. When you are gone, the damage will be permanent. To answer your question of who stands to gain, the world stands to gain; in particular the young artists and art historians who deserve a credible history of their craft.
Wolfgang, you claim you are “one of the most exhibited artists in museums in the world.” With an estimate of 250 of your forged paintings unaccounted for, there is tremendous opportunity to clear the record. Like John, you credit your ability to empathize with an artist fully as being the source of your great talents for forgery. But leaving your forgeries undisclosed denies the opportunity for future artists to authentically empathize and connect with the masters, the same opportunities that you were afforded. Leaving your forgeries undisclosed does not reflect the deep capacity for empathy you cite as the source of your gifts.
There are of course many other known forgers: Mark Landis, Shaun Greenhalgh, Pei-Shen Qian, Tony Tetro, John Re, Robert Driessen, Xiao Yuan, Norman Cornish, Lawrence Ulvi, and an unknown amount at large. Many of you argue you never intended your works to be sold as forged originals by other artists, but rather as fun decorative works in the style of the masters. Taken at face value, all the more reason to clear the record.
Perhaps it is not my place to write you such a letter, but then whose is it? Staying quiet and waiting has not been an effective strategy. We’ve already lost the opportunity to learn from Han van Meegeren, Elmyr de Hory, Tom Keating, Eric Hebborn, Otto Wacker and others as to where their works might be located. To vilify you into the shadows or deify you as lovable rogues through pop culture does nothing to restore the artistic record. I propose a third option, an amnesty for disclosure. Perhaps take a cue from Ken and create a CR (to be released posthumously, if needed). This would require that you set aside some time to put down as much information as you can now while it is still possible to do so.
It will undoubtedly cause both head- and heartache when the information on the whereabouts of your works is eventually made public. We have the rest of human existence to resolve that, whereas we have only your remaining lifetimes to collect the critical information on how many works you have forged and your best guess on the location of those works. The clock is ticking, art is long, life is short.
Thank you for your consideration,