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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

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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

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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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