Throughout the 20th and 21st century there have been numerous artists as talented as the legendary grand masters of the art world. While those artists had undeniable talents, unlike the majority of the grand masters they weren’t prepared to wait until they were dead for their work to be appreciated. They wanted to reap the monetary worth of their skills while they were still alive to enjoy it and so they turned to forgery.

The counterfeit works of art those con artists created were such impeccable copies they were able to convince even the most astute art experts that they were originals. And they didn’t just sell their forgeries for thousands of dollars, they sold them for millions.

Han van Meegeren: The Dutch Master Faker

Han van Meegeren was born in Deventer in the Netherlands in 1889 and as a young man moved to Amsterdam to further his already promising career as an artist. Disillusioned at not making the breakthrough he’d anticipated, he relocated to France where he began painting forgeries of well known works by Dutch painters of the Golden Age.

After several years honing the techniques he would finally use to create his forgeries, van Meegeren began work on what would be his masterpiece, the Supper at Emmaus in the style of Johannes Vermeer. While the work was in reality a close copy of a painting by the Italian artist, Michelangelo, Han van Meegeren had managed to emulate Vermeer’s style so accurately that the forgery was credited as an authentic Vermeer by the leading art experts of the time.

Van Meegeren sold the fake Supper at Emmaus to The Rembrandt Society for what would be the equivalent of around five million dollars today. It was put on display among other works by Vermeer in a museum in Rotterdam.

During the troubled years of WW2, van Meegeren’s agent of the time sold another of his forgeries, Christ with the Adulteress, to a Nazi art dealer who in turn exchanged it for works Herman Göring had looted. When those works were recovered after the end of the war, van Meegeren’s talent for forgery was discovered.

Initially arrested as a Nazi collaborator, after his trial van Meegeren was hailed as a hero for passing forged works to the Nazis. Van Meegeren may have made millions from his forgeries during his lifetime, but his work finally found recognition after his death and is now exhibited, along with his original works, in art museums all over the world.

The image is a painting of a group of people sitting at a table with a plate of food in front of them. The people are dressed in traditional ancient clothing, with the person in the center wearing a blue robe. They are all looking at the man in the center. The man in the center is reaching out to take a piece of bread. The background of the image is a plain, light-colored wall. There is light coming through a window to the side of the room.
The Supper at Emmaus by Han van Meegeren 1936–1937, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Wolfgang Beltracchi: The Campendonk Scammer

Wolfgang Beltracchi is a renowned German forger who, the same as Han van Meegeren, created works in the style of famous artists rather than directly copying their masterpieces.

The most famous forgeries Beltracchi committed were works he painted in the style of Heinrich Campendonk. Beltracchi and his wife also created complex provenances for those forgeries to make them appear totally authentic.

Beltracchi frankly admits to painting forgeries in their hundreds and making millions from his unscrupulous work. In the end it was lack of attention to detail that brought him to justice when he used the wrong white pigment in one of the paintings. That Campendonk painting was sold for over three million dollars, but a canny art expert noticed the use of the incorrect pigment and Beltracchi was charged with fraud.

Altogether Beltracchi was convicted of fourteen forgies and along with his wife, received a short prison sentence as well as being ordered to repay some of the money he had been paid for the fake artworks. After his release, Beltracchi relocated to France and continues to paint to this day.

The image shows a man and a woman standing in front of an easel in an art studio. The man is wearing a blue shirt and the woman is wearing a black and red dress and a red sweater. They are both looking at the camera. There are several paintings on the walls behind them.
The Beltracchis in their studio

Elmyr de Hory: The Greatest Art Forger of Our Time

Elmyr de Hory was a Hungarian artist born in the early 1900s who studied art as a young man first in Romania and then in Germany. After being released from a concentration camp at the end of WW2, he traveled widely in Europe earning money as he went by selling his copies of works by Piccasso. He used his dubiously earned gains to fund a trip to Brazil and then to New York.

Even when many of the elite galleries de Hory sold his fakes to began to get suspicious, he didn’t stop producing or selling his works. De Hory continued to produce forgeries, but offered the work to dealers and galleries using numerous different pseudonyms. It was only when his work began to deteriorate due to bad health in his late fifties, that the works he’d previously sold to galleries and passed off as those of famous artists such as Matisse and Renoir were discovered to be fakes.

Although de Hory was paid for the forgeries he created, the ones who gained the most from his work were the art galleries who resold the paintings. Exactly how much those paintings were sold for is unknown, but it’s estimated to be somewhere in the region of what would be around fifty million dollars today.

As more and more fake paintings were discovered, de Hory went on the run to escape questioning by the FBI. After a brief spell in Australia, de Hory settled in Ibiza, but not long after arriving he was sent to prison charged with criminal association and homosexuality.

In the meantime, after extensive press coverage about his activities, de Hory had become notorious back in the US. He was deemed a person of interest by both Clifford Irving, who wrote a book, The Greatest Art Forger of Our Time, about de Hory, and Orson Welles who produced a documentary, F for Fake, about the forger. Elmyr de Hory committed suicide in 1976 after being threatened with deportation.

A collage of two paintings, one features a woman in a white blouse, the other features a woman in a black dress sitting at a table.
Left: “Portrait of a Polish Woman ”by Amedeo Modigliani, 1919 Philadelphia Museum of Art. Right: Elmyr de Hory’s forgery in the style of Modigliani, 1950s.

John Myatt: The Multi-talented Master Forger

John Myatt led a pretty straight and narrow life until he made friends with an art dealer called John Drewe. Until that fateful encounter British-born Myatt had only painted fake paintings for fun or sold them honestly telling people they were works he’d created in the style of whichever famous artist he’d copied.

Drewe changed all that by selling one of Myatt’s works, a copy of an Albert Gleizes, to a top London auction house for just under thirty-thousand dollars. Drewe persuaded Myatt to continue producing forgeries and he did. Myatt exploited his incredible talent to produce over two hundred paintings which Drewe then sold as authentic works by Matisse, Giacometti, Dubuffet and many more. By the time the deceitful pair were apprehended it’s estimated they’d sold in the region of twenty-eight million dollars worth of fake works.

After serving a year in prison for committing fraud, Myatt was released and continues to produce paintings in the style of the great artists, and has become famous in his own right for what he calls his genuine fakes.

A photograph of a man standing in front of a painting of a field of poppies. He is wearing a blazer and sweater and has a lighthearted expression on his face. The painting is hanging on the wall behind him and there are other paintings visible in the background. The room is well lit. The room appears to be an art gallery.
John Myatt next to a painting (Castle Galleries)

Eric Hebborn: The Boastful Faker

After a troubled childhood, Eric Hebborn began to demonstrate his incredible artistic talents as a student at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London. In common with many artists who take to forgery, Hebborn didn’t feel that his own work was appreciated enough so he turned to producing paintings in the style of grand masters like Van Dyck and Rubens which were well received by the art world.

Unknown to the art world, Hebborn was also producing forgeries of both paintings and sculptures at the same time. After several suspected forgeries were discovered in a New York museum, Hebborn was suspected of being the artist who had created them but he was never charged with a crime.

Hebborn was, in fact, so proud of his skills as a forger that he even wrote a book about his talents and how he had managed to continually deceive the art experts. Hebborn boasted he had created more than five hundred forgeries, including a Pietro da Cortona, which was auctioned at Sotheby’s for over thirty-five thousand dollars. The rest of his forgeries were estimated to have been sold for a total sum of somewhere in the region of thirty million dollars. Hebborn was murdered in Italy in 1996. What he did with all of the money he made from forgery is a secret he took to his grave.

A photograph of a man with a beard and mustache, wearing a gray suit with a dark shirt and holding a framed picture in front of him. The picture appears to be a drawing of a woman with long hair and a flowing dress. The man is smiling and appears to be happy.
Artist Eric Hebborn pictured alongside his authentic drawing emulating the artistic style of Fra Bartolomeo, a prominent artist from the 15th century, Tim Ockenden, Getty Images

Tom Keating: The Most Prolific Forger Of All Time

While many forgers claim to be the most prolific forgers in art history, Tom Keating is the one the title truly belongs to. Keating created over two thousand fakes although that said, the monetary gain from them was far less than that earnt by other less prolific forgers.

Unable to afford art school as a young man, Keating finally realized his ambition after serving in the Navy during WW2 when he was granted a course for services rendered. He didn’t finish the course, but instead went on to become a painting restorer which is where he discovered his talent for creating fakes.

When his forgeries began selling for more than he’d been paid for them, Keating developed an intense dislike for art dealers. Keatings goal was to deflate the market by swamping it with fakes of paintings by particular artists such as Samuel Palmer and Cornelius Kreighoff. It was the sale of a Palmer forgery for around twelve thousand dollars that was later proved to be a fake that was the beginning of his downfall.

After being arrested, Keating admitted to the staggering amount of fake work he’d produced which was estimated to have been sold for roughly ten million dollars. The case against him was eventually dropped due to Keatings increasing bad health. He died at the age of sixty-six after starring in an educational TV program where he demonstrated his incredible skills by producing copies of paintings by grand masters live on air.

A collage of two paintings, both paintings show two pairs consisting of a mother and a child walking in a field of poppies. Trees and a house can be seen in the background.
Top: Poppy Field by Claude Monet, 1873. Bottom: Forgery by Tom Keating.

Shaun Greenhalgh: Sculpting A Fake Fortune

When it came to forgery Shaun Greenhalgh believed in one thing and that was keeping it in the family. This British forger from Bolton and his nearest and dearest were able to convince experts that pieces of art they were offering for sale were inherited family heirlooms. They were, in fact, copies that Greenhalgh had made himself.

While Greenhalgh painted fake pictures, his real talent was sculpting copies of ancient artifacts. The most famous piece he fobbed off as an original was a headless and armless statuette known as the Armani Princess. Greenhalgh made the fake sculpture in his garden shed, had a family member provide a fake provenance stating it had been in the family for over a century, then sold the statue to the Bolton Museum for well over half a million dollars.

Greenhalgh and his family cohorts were eventually caught out when they tried to pass off more sculptures of a similar nature to an auction house who decided to verify their authenticity with the British Museum. After spending almost five years in prison for his sculpting sins, Greenhalgh returned to his garden shed and continued honing his craft. Only now he sells his work as fakes and is doing just as well as he was before.

A collage of two photographs. The first image is of a man in a white apron standing in front of a blue door. He has his arms crossed in front of him and looking at the camera with a serious expression. The second image is a close up of a marble statue of a nude woman with her hands on her hips and her head tilted to the side. The statue is made of white marble and has intricate details on her body.
Shaun Greenhalgh and the Armani Princess statue sold the statue to the Bolton Museum for well over half a million dollars.

Alceo Dossena: The Poor Master Faker

While you may not be familiar with the name Alceo Dossena, it’s one that made wave-sized ripples in the art world. Similar to Shaun Greenhalgh, Dossena was a sculptor, but one who focused on copying works of a religious nature by artists from the Greek, Roman and Renaissance periods.

Dossena sculptures were so good they were easily passed off as the real thing. Unfortunately for Dossena, he received very little recompense as his talent was heavily exploited by dishonest dealers. After Dossena discovered how much money the dealers were making for the work he was being paid a pittance for, he exposed them to the authorities.

While he did have to attend a trial for committing forgery, he had never sold any of his fakes himself and was duly acquitted. In a surprising about-turn, the court awarded him more than sixty-five thousand dollars in compensation. The financial gain didn’t make any difference though and he passed away in Rome still an impoverished artist.

The image is a marble relief depicting the Virgin Mary holding a baby in her lap. The Virgin Mary is depicted with a serene expression and is dressed in a long flowing robe. The baby in her lap is depicted as a small, naked infant. The background of the relief is blank, with no other elements visible.
The Madonna and Child, a marble sculpture crafted by Alceo Dossena in 1930, on display at the San Diego Museum of Art.

Mark Landis: The Philanthropic Forger

Mark Landis has set himself apart from the norm as far as forgers are concerned. Landis had no monetary motivation for creating the fake works he did because rather than sell them he donated them free of charge to museums all across the US.

Landis originally donated a fake work he’d created to a museum to impress his mother. It was an action that soon became an obsession. It’s not known exactly how many forgeries he gave away before he got caught after an ultraviolet light inspection of one the paintings showed it to be fake. Because he made no financial gain from giving the forged paintings away, he has never been criminally charged.

Sometimes creating forgeries pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. The one thing that’s not in question though is whether or not these forgers were talented – they had a surplus of it. Even though they’ve gained notoriety in what can only be called an unconventional way, they’ve certainly left their lasting mark on the art world.

This photograph shows an older man sitting in a red armchair in a room with a large painting on the wall behind him. He is wearing a black suit and has a serious expression on his face. The room is cluttered with books and documents.
Mark Landis captured at his residence alongside his latest artistic creations, Oscilloscope Laboratories