5 Art Forgers Who Made Their Way To Fame

Throughout history, people have tried to profit by forging artworks. Some escape undetected, but the art forgers who get caught often end up as famous artists themselves.

Sep 12, 2020By John Sewell, BA & MA Art History, University of Birmingham
vermeer smiling girl forgery
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, 1665, via Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague (left); with The Smiling Girl by Unknown Artist, 1925, via The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (right)


You might argue that a famous art forger is a bad one. However, many of the world’s most famous art forgeries spent many years undetected. This is why when they are discovered to be fake, the person behind it often quickly becomes a famous artist themselves. After all, while the ethics of forging artworks remain, at best, dubious; it is hard not to admire the skill involved in successfully pulling the wool over the eyes of many so-called experts. 


Some experts have estimated that as many as 20% of the artworks in many major museums could be forgeries. The recent high-profile case of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi has also shone a light into the potentially intentional ignorance of those in such museums, as they’d prefer not to ruin their potential footfall increasing acquisitions by admitting the truth of their origins. Thankfully, however, and thanks to the wonders of technology, it is now getting harder and harder for forgeries to go undetected.


However, here is a list of the most famous forgers through the history of art. Some are more successful than others, but many manage to fool the experts time and time again. Many made a pretty penny while they were at it too, becoming famous artists themselves.


5. Michelangelo Buonarotti: World-Famous Artist And Forger

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Detail of Portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti by Daniele da Volterra, 1545, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


It is well documented that Michelangelo, one of art history’s most famous artists, began his professional life in somewhat less glorious circumstances than that which we associate with him today. Long before he set out to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo had been struggling to make his way as a famous artist and found that he could put his skills to use in the production of fake Greek and Roman antiquities. 


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These were popular items among the wealthiest citizens of Rome, however, as you would imagine, finding genuine artifacts that had survived more than a millennium was not straightforward. 


While under the employ of the powerful Medici family, Michelangelo was asked by a rival sculptor to help him create a statue that looked as if it had been buried and rediscovered. He rubbed the statue in acidic soil to age it and, at first, his ploy actually worked. 


bust cardinal riario san giorgio
Bust of Cardinal Riario of San Giorgio by Andrea Bregno, 1478, via The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


The sculpture was bought by Cardinal Raffaello Riario of San Giorgio, who upon realizing he had been tricked, decided not to press charges against Michelangelo. He deemed that Michelangelo’s forgery skills were so good that he deserved to get away with it!


The sculpture was so appreciated by his contemporaries, as an artwork in its own right and as a forgery, that it was allegedly displayed alongside genuine 4th century ancient Greek statues. It was then eventually bought by King Charles I and displayed in one of his palaces, although it is thought that the sculpture was damaged beyond repair and then lost following the Palace of Whitehall fire in 1698.


4. Han Van Meegeren: Art Forgeries Of 17th-Century Masters

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Han van Meegeren in his studio photographed by Koos Raucamp, 1945, via The Netherlands National Archive, The Hague


Taking a giant historical leap, from the Renaissance through to the Second World War, we encounter arguably one of the most successful and notorious forgers in the history of art – Han van Meegeren


His career is a fascinating, if complex, tale of a man who was open about his ability as a forger and who still managed to dupe many people into buying his work on the assumption that it was genuine. 


He was caught up in the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and profited from it as wealthy Dutch collectors and Nazi party members, including Hermann Goering, wished to buy up ‘original’ national treasures. Van Meegeren even wrote admiringly to Adolf Hitler, sending him a signed copy of one of his art books.


He was known to outwardly boast about his skill as a forger and that his works didn’t just imitate the people whose work he was recreating, but that he was bettering it. He termed this practice, ‘the perfect forgery’. 


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The Last Supper I by Han van Meegeren at the 11th Art and Antiques Fair in Rotterdam, 1984, via The Netherlands National Archive, The Hague


He claimed that he turned to creating fake artworks after being rejected by many of his contemporaries as a painter in his own right. He felt the best way to sock it to them was to fool them into thinking something created by his hand was, in fact, the work of the master painters of the 17th century.


To his credit, his skill was all the more impressive considering he was unable to use life models in case they spilled the beans about his practices. As such, he had to conjure up the scenes in his head (which is no mean feat) and where possible took direct inspiration from existing artworks by the famous artists he copied.


His most famous artist fakes particularly included his ‘Vermeers‘, which eventually landed him in court following his close links to the Nazi party. He was ultimately charged with just a year in prison after he had managed to overturn the charges of collaborating with the Nazi party and was only found guilty of forgery


The fact that his work lives on as an example of great forgeries would possibly at the same time annoy and please van Meegeren. After all, he had hoped that after his death, his fakes would ‘become Vermeers once more’. He hoped that as people forgot about his story and once again fell for his trickery.  


3. Walter Keane: Took Credit For His Wife’s Work

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Walter and Margaret Keane posing with their Big Eye paintings, via New York Post


One of the most despicable figures in the history of art forgery, Walter Keane finally got his comeuppance when he was found guilty of falsely claiming the works as his own in a court of law.


For more than ten years he had been psychologically manipulating and abusing his wife, Margaret Ulbrich, and passing off her paintings as his own work. Walter Keane was an artist himself but had never seen any great success. Once he saw that his wife’s works were much more highly appreciated than his own work, he set out to claim the work as his own. At one point she was painting for 16 hours a day, to keep a supply to meet the demand – yet she received no recognition for her role as the artist.


Keane was successful in duping the media, the art world and his peers (including Andy Warhol) until Ulbrich eventually managed to take him to court following her announcement in 1970 that the works were indeed her own. 


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Amy Adams as Margaret Keane in the film Big Eyes, 2014, via KNKX Public Radio, Tacoma


The case hinged on the moment when the pair were asked to sit in the courtroom and paint, alongside each other. Of course, Keane didn’t manage to create the works (citing a sore shoulder) and he was ultimately forced to repay Ulbrich $4 million in damages. Although, she never saw any of this money as the penalty was overturned on appeal in 1990 and Keane had already lost the fortune he had made on the back of her work. 


The story of this famous case in the history of art forgeries was played out in the film ‘Big Eyes‘ (2014), directed by Tim Burton, whose own artistic endeavors were heavily inspired by Ulbrich. In the film, both Ulbrich and Keane were brilliantly portrayed by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. 


2. Wolfgang Beltracchi: Prolific Conman Of Art Forgeries

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Wolfgang Beltracchi in a still from ‘Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery,’ via New York Post


Another forger who didn’t manage to escape punishment for his deviance is Wolfgang Beltracchi. He spent just over two years in prison for his fraudulent work, along with his wife, Helene, and both were required to repay millions of dollars back to those whom they had ripped off. 


He is known to have created forged works by famous artists such as Fernand Léger, Heinrich Camperdonk and Kees van Dongen, among others. In one instance, he sold a Max Ernst forgery to a reputable dealer for almost $2 million after having it officially approved as a genuine article by the art historian, Werner Spies. One of Beltrachi’s forgeries was even hung for a period in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective of Ernst’s work.


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Wolfgang Beltracchi standing next to his artwork in his Swiss studio, via Stern Magazine, Hamburg


It was with the help of his wife, Helene, that he was able to distribute his highly skilled fakes. Whenever she visited an auction to sell one of the paintings, she would tell a story about how her grandfather had stashed his collection away during World War II and she had ended up the sole inheritor of his world-leading collection.


Of course, this was entirely fabricated. But the collaboration between Wolfgang and Helene certainly merits their own self-proclaimed title as the ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ of the art world. 


His story is another which has been captured on film, although in this case in the form of a documentary, ‘Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery’ (2014). In this film the audience is given a peek into his operation and how it came tumbling down following his prosecution.


1. David Bowie: Fabricating A Famous Artist

david bowie forgery
David Bowie arrives at his April Fools party holding Nat Tate’s biography, 1998, via Harper’s Bazaar, New York


We’re going to end how we began and that is with a figure who you might not expect to be guilty of forging art. This time it’s the cultural icon that was David Bowie. However, his artistic forgery took a very different guise to many of those that we have seen so far.


In 1998, on the eve of April Fools, Bowie arrived at a party holding a book. He announced that it was the biography of the famous artist, Nat Tate, who had died 38 years prior. He gave a reading of a section of the book to the gathered guests and spoke of his admiration for this previously under-appreciated painter. He argued that Tate had actually played an important role in the development of art in the 20th century.


Gallerists the world over began to scramble to find work by Tate, so that they could snap up for themselves. Many soon publicly aired their appreciation for Tate in the press and among the highfalutin social circles of the art world. Many of them had apparently met him, seen his work and they proselytized that it had been incredibly significant.


nat tate american artist
Nat Tate: An American Artist by William Boyd, 1998, via AbeBooks, Victoria


However, Bowie eventually came out and spilled the beans that Tate was in fact a figment of nothing more than imagination. He had written this biography (along with Gore Vidal and Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson) to prove a point about the celebrity status of famous artists and the whirlwind of money and fame that can surround them when they are deemed to be important by a certain group of people. 


Therefore, one of the greatest forgers of art wasn’t even recreating a painting or a sculpture. Instead, Bowie took things to another level and forged an entire character of a famous artist. In doing so, pulled one of the greatest tricks ever played on the art establishment. 

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By John SewellBA & MA Art History, University of BirminghamJohn holds both a BA and an MA in Art History from the University of Birmingham, UK. His academic research focussed on nineteenth and early-twentieth century depictions of narcotics use, addiction and race-relations. However, his interests extend far beyond this; and his work covers an array of topics from many different periods and locations around the world. Alongside writing, he is also the founder of Eazyl - an online art marketplace for emerging artists which charges no commission fees.