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7 Art Forgers Who Made a Fortune From Knock-Offs

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Pablo Picasso said, "Good artists copy but great artists steal." Charles Caleb Colton remarked, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." If such aphorisms are taken literally, then the art forgers listed below are both good and great—and obscene brown-nosers. They're also rich...or at least they were.

1. Han van Meegeren

Wikimedia Commons

Dutch painter Jan Vermeer was only moderately successful during his lifetime, never achieving much fame or fortune. When he died, he left his wife and children in debt. But Vermeer's paintings and legacy helped make a lot of other people money—including Dutch forger Han van Meegeren, who made more than $30 million in the 1930s and '40s tricking art historians and expert art dealers into believing a painting that he had conceived just months prior was actually a newly surfaced 300-year-old Vermeer.

2. Pei-Shen Qian

Pei-Shen Qian was recently indicted for his role in a $33 million fraud scheme in New York that involved two Spanish art dealers. The 75-year-old Chinese-American painter is now safe and sound in China, where he has citizenship and is unlikely to be extradited. Qian replicated the works of popular modern masters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning.

3. Wolfgang Beltracchi

Even though it may sound fun, tricking the uber rich into forking over millions for fake paintings is frowned upon. As Wolfgang Beltracchi—the German painter who's admitted to producing more than 100 forged works of 50-plus acclaimed artists—found out, it's also a jailable offense.

4. John Myatt

Scotland Yard called it "the biggest art fraud of the 20th century": Between 1986 and 1994, the English painter John Myatt painted more than 200 forgeries, fooling everyone from Sotheby's to European museums. In 1999, he got caught and sentenced to a year in prison, though he got out in four months on good behavior. Now, Myatt sells paintings as John Myatt.

5. William J. Toye

Not all forgers attempt to imitate the European masters. Although William J. Toye, a New Orleans painter, first started mimicking artists like Degas, Monet, Gauguin, and Renoir, he became most famous when he was implicated in a series of fraudulent sales of works credited to African-American folk artist Clementine Hunter. Because Hunter sold many of her hundreds of paintings door to door in Louisiana as a relative unknown, it wasn't necessarily improbable that a New Orleans native would have happened upon several of her works at a garage sale.

Toye's fraud was eventually unveiled by the FBI, and he and his wife (an accomplice) were sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay $426,393 to the people he hoodwinked. To this day, Toye remains bitter and unapologetic, and he continues to offer no appreciation of the woman who helped make him famous, saying of Hunter's paintings: “They’re junk, and really only good as dartboards.”

6. Elmyr de Hory

Wikimedia Commons

Hungarian artist Elmyr de Hory was imprisoned for political dissidence in his home country, sent to concentration camps by the Germans for being both Jewish and openly gay (he was a homosexual, but not Jewish), jailed in Mexico City on suspicion of murder, and jailed again in Spain for "consorting with criminals" and homosexuality.

But the man, who admitted to faking hundreds of works by famous painters from Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse to Alfred Sisley and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, never faced trial for his artistic dupery. He committed suicide in 1976, before Spain had the chance to extradite him to France to pay for his crimes of creative duplicity.

7. Robert Driessen

Driessen Art

Dutch artist Robert Driessen is the most successful forger that very few people know about—but those few people include the European authorities, who are keen to arrest the man that allegedly sold more than 1000 fake Alberto Giacometti sculptures, netting more than $10 million. But while Driessen's German accomplices sit in prison, he is free and running a small cafe in Thailand. "I am trapped in paradise," he says.

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Ape Meets Girl
Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Barack Obama Taps Kehinde Wiley to Paint His Official Presidential Portrait
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Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist known for his grand portraits of African-American subjects, has painted Michael Jackson, Ice-T, and The Notorious B.I.G. in his work. Now the artist will have the honor of adding Barack Obama to that list. According to the Smithsonian, the former president has selected Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait, which will hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley’s portraits typically depict black people in powerful poses. Sometimes he models his work after classic paintings, as was the case with "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps.” The subjects are often dressed in hip-hop-style clothing and placed against decorative backdrops.

Portrait by Kehinde Wiley
"Le Roi a la Chasse"
Kehinde Wiley, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Smithsonian also announced that Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald has been chosen by former first lady Michelle Obama to paint her portrait for the gallery. Like Wiley, Sherald uses her work to challenge stereotypes of African-Americans in art.

“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former president and first lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a press release. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”

The tradition of the president and first lady posing for portraits for the National Portrait Gallery dates back to George H.W. Bush. Both Wiley’s and Sherald’s pieces will be revealed in early 2018 as permanent additions to the gallery in Washington, D.C.


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