Forgery has been at the front of the art world's mind in recent years. In what is only the most visible case, the fallout continues over revelations that New York's venerable Knoedler Gallery made tens of millions of dollars peddling phony Abstract Expressionist works made by a Chinese artist living in Queens. Even still, prolific forger Mark Landis would seem to be a one-of-a-kind case.
Art and Craft, a new documentary that premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, tells the forger's complicated story. Co-directed by Sam Cullman (who helmed the Oscar-nominated 2011 documentary If a Tree Falls) and Jennifer Grausman (director of the Emmy-nominated 2008 doc Pressure Cooker), it opens Sept. 19 in New York. An intriguing character and the subject of a New Yorker profile in 2013, Landis isn't in the counterfeiting business for the money. Instead of selling his work, which includes everything from copies of Picasso canvases to replicas of Charles Schultz drawings, Landis creates his forgeries just so he can place them in museum collections.
"In Sunday school they always tell everybody to make use of their gifts. Copying pictures is my gift," the 59-year-old Landis tells the filmmakers. And Landis's meticulous copies, sometimes stained with coffee to lend the appearance of age, have fooled museum professionals for three decades. Since 1985, over 100 Landis fakes have been incorporated into the collections of 46 museums across the United States, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Following a multiyear stay at a psychiatric hospital for schizophrenia, a young Landis took photography courses in Chicago and San Francisco. But creating original art didn't interest him: "I learned all the processes, but . . . I couldn't think of a thing I wanted to take a picture of." So he turned his attention to recreating famous works, and in 1985 he "decided to become a philanthropist."
Occasionally posing as a Jesuit priest in a costume complete with clerical collar, at other times pretending to be a grieving relative fulfilling a family member's dying wish, Landis is shown in Art and Craft offering up his creations, always accompanied by a well-crafted backstory or a phony provenance, to grateful museum staff. It makes for tense viewing since we know the camera crew is in on the deception.
Rare is the film that has an art museum registrar as its hero. But it was only when Matthew Leininger, at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, started researching a Landis donation in 2008 that the deceit began to unravel. "They look so good and so real; the guy is a skilled artist," Leininger says, "[but] he messed with the wrong registrar."
While gathering information on a Paul Signac harbor scene Landis gave his museum, Leininger made a disturbing discovery. Multiple copies of the same Signac, all donated by Landis, were in the collections of museums nationwide. Leininger would go on to uncover Landis fakes in 20 states. The outraged registrar then made it his mission to foil the forger.
But hopes that Leininger or the authorities can make Landis stop are soon dashed. Since no money has ever been exchanged for Landis's donations, technically no crime has been committed. "The fact is he gave it to the museum," says Art Crime Team FBI agent Robert Wittman, adding, "It's up to the museum to determine what they think of it."
After attending the opening of "Faux Real," a 2012 solo exhibition at the University of Cincinnati comprising 90 Landis forgeries, the painter decided it was time to stop his philanthropist act. But that may not be the last of Landis. Art and Craft ends with him signaling what might come next: "I happened on this idea-returning missing or stolen artwork[s] to their owners."