There’s an old Latin saying that is still good advice today: caveat emptor, which means “let the buyer beware.” It means if you’re going to buy something, you should take caution in making sure you’re getting what you pay for.
It’s the kind of thing people think of when they’re looking at used cars or “designer” clothing sold by street vendors. But as it would turn out, it’s equally good advice in the world of high art…
Featured Photo Credit: www.berkeleyside.com
Born in 1955, Mark was the only son of Arthur and Jonita Landis. His father being a lieutenant (and later a lieutenant commander) in the US Navy, the family moved around a lot. With assignments to the Philippines, Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Brussels, Mark would be firmly in his teens before his family moved back to the US and he had a permanent home.
Because they’d moved around so much, Mark never developed many strong friendships. But on the other hand, he developed a very close relationship with his parents. That’s one of the reasons why, when the the Landises finally settled in Jackson, Mississippi and Arthur was diagnosed with cancer shortly thereafter, it was so devastating…
Arthur’s health deteriorated rapidly and, in less than a year, he had passed away. The 17-year-old Mark was devastated by his death, and suffered a nervous breakdown. Over the next 18 months, he was treated in a Kansas hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Art School Dropout
After he got out of the hospital, Mark enrolled in art school. He was a very skilled student but became disillusioned with the way art was taught and eventually dropped out. After unsuccessfully operating an art gallery and losing money in a bad real-estate investment, Mark decided to return to live with his mother in Laurel, Mississippi…
I Did It For Mom
While he was there, he decided that he was going to try to get some of his art into a museum. “It was an impulse to impress my mother. I always admired the rich collectors on TV giving away pictures to museums,” Mark said. But at the time, Mark was a nobody in the art world. No matter how brilliant his art, no museum would be interested unless there was a notable name attached to it.
That’s What They Want
So Mark decided to simply put someone else’s name on his art. “I put Maynard Dixon’s name on them because that’s what the museums wanted,” he said. “He was a cowboy artist, so I went to the library and checked out some books of photographs of American Indians, and copied a bunch of them.” He reproduced those photographs, brilliantly imitating Dixon’s style and went off to the museum…
Surprisingly enough, the museum believed that the Mark’s forgeries were authentic Dixon pieces. When he told the museum that he was thinking of donating them, the museum staff bent over backwards treating him well to persuade him to give up the artwork.
The Royal Treatment
“Have you ever been treated like royalty?” Mark said. “Let me tell you, it’s pretty good.” On top of the nice treatment, his mother was also impressed both by his artwork and his cleverness. That was all Mark needed to convince him to continue making forgeries…
Keep It Simple
There were a few things that made Mark a very unusual art forger, the first being what materials he used. “I know everybody’s heard about forgers that do all these complicated things with chemicals and what-have-you,” he said. “I don’t have that kind of patience. I buy my supplies at Walmart or Woolworth — discount stores.”
Next, was the amount of time Mark spent on each piece. Most art forgers painstakingly work away at a single piece for a weeks or even months. Mark, on the other hand would spend “an hour or two at most,” on each piece. “If I can’t get something done by the time a movie’s over on TV, I’ll give up on it.”…
Then there’s the money. When someone goes through the effort of recreating a piece of art and tricking others into thinking it’s an original, common sense says they’re doing it in order to sell that fake for a lot of money. Mark didn’t do anything of the sort.
In fact, Mark never once asked for any money. Instead, he donated every single one of his fakes. He would make up lies about how he’d discovered an art collection of a recently deceased relative or claim to be representing a wealthy family member, sometimes even employing disguises…
Mark’s ability to fool people with his acting was apparently as good as his ability to fool people with his art. For 30 years, he was able to pull the wool over the eyes of countless museums and gallery curators. He may have never been caught until, in 2008, he made the mistake of sending copies of the same works to different galleries.
In 2008, he walked into the Oklahoma City Museum and spoke with Matt Leininger, the man in charge of looking for new works of art. “We just thought Landis was a really eccentric art collector, Leininger said. “The first piece he gave us, he actually hand-delivered – a watercolour by Louis Valtat,” he added…
“We framed the Valtat and put it on display next to a Renoir in our gallery, not knowing what we had just hung was a fake,” said Leininger. Then Mark donated a few more pieces to the museum that appeared to be by the 19th Century French artists Paul Signac and Stanislas Lepine. When Leininger did a quick bit of research on those pieces, he found out that Mark Landis had apparently already donated them elsewhere.
A Closer Look
That raised a red flag in Leininger’s mind which made him decide to inspect the pieces more carefully. When he pulled back the brittle-looking mount board on a supposedly centuries-old chalk drawing, he fully expected it to fall apart. “It didn’t, and when I peeled it back it was stark white,” Leininger said. He could even smell the old coffee that Mark had used to make the piece appear aged…
That’s how it was with nearly all of Mark’s forgeries. At first glance, it appeared to be a convincing, authentic work by this or that master artist. But when subjected to even a cursory inspection, it was easy enough to see that it was a fake. So how had he been able to get away with his deception for so long?
Give Them What They Want
“Landis would do his homework. He knew what museums collected. He was pretty sure they were going to be accepted because it would have fit their collection,” Leininger said. “He said everything an art museum would want to hear.” All this time, curators simply decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth…
Leininger contacted a former FBI agent who specialised in art crime about how to proceed. But because there was no exchange of money for Mark’s forgeries, no law was broken. If he or any other institution had accepted phony art, and chose to display it as real, that was their problem.
When news of what Mark had done became public, there was plenty of embarrassment to go around in the art community. For his part, Mark never felt bad about it. “I’m like Pinocchio,” he said. You let your conscience be your guide. If something’s really wrong, you kind of know. I wasn’t worried about being prosecuted.” A couple of years after he was found out, Leininger worked with the University of Cincinnati got together a collection of Mark’s forgeries — on April Fool’s day.