Where does notoriety end and fame begin? The border is porous, the line disputed. But tonight, Mark Landis is a star. “You are a delightful person,” one woman tells him. “You are an inspiration,” says her friend. It is a long time since anyone wanted him locked up.
Landis is standing in the lobby of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, beneath a vintage poster for Carl Dreyer’s Passion de Jeanne d’Arc that he could knock off in an hour were he so inclined. His suit is a size too large. His Ralph Lauren sneakers have thick white rims, like Al Capone’s tyres. With his hunched back and balding pate, he is a dog collar short of the Jesuit priest he sometimes pretended to be when tricking museums into accepting his fakes. Landis is one of the most prolific forgers in history. Although he fooled dozens of curators, all over the United States, no-one bears him ill will.
The documentary about him, Art & Craft, has just had its theatrical premiere. “I’m an old guy. I’m winding down,” he tells the crowd, but it doesn’t square with his demeanour, which is of a schoolboy with pockets full of stolen sweets to share. “It never occurred to me that a couple of glamorous New York city film-makers would want to come and talk to me,” he says. “It’s every retiree’s fantasy.” The assembled retirees chortle indulgently.
Landis reproduces artworks using what he calls his “memory trick” of flicking between a photograph of the original and his version, adding a stroke or two at time. He has counterfeited a Picasso, and recently painted the Mona Lisa on commission, but during his forging spree, he mostly copied second tier artists such as Louis Valtat, Marie Laurencin and John Jacob Miller. He passed off his favourites many times. One Stanislas Lepine landscape made its way into the collections of six museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago.
In the film’s opening minutes, Landis is shown meeting his case worker, Donna. She asks if he’s been taking his medication, whether he’s been feeling angry or depressed. He is a diagnosed schizophrenic, and as a teenager, spent a year in a psychiatric hospital after suffering a breakdown. “One of the reasons I wanted to stay friends with Donna was just in case somebody really did get mad at me, so I could play the mental health card,” he tells the cinema audience. This gets a huge laugh.
In 1985, Landis copied a portrait of an American Indian by Maynard Dixon and donated it to the Oakland Museum of California in memory of his father, Lieutenant Commander Arthur Landis Jr. With his eccentric manner and knowledgeable small talk, he made a convincing philanthropist. “I’d never been treated before in my life with so much respect and deference,” he says. “I got addicted to it.” Like a first-time gambler whose horse comes home in front, he was hooked.
A man asks if he crossed a line by promising endowments and whole collections of art to museums. “When people start treating you like a VIP, you kind of get carried away,” Landis says, adding that drink played a part. “Everybody’s been around people who have had a few, and they’ll start making extravagant promises.” In one scene, he swigs from a small bottle of ‘medicine’ in his jacket pocket before meeting a curator.
Once the question and answer session is over, we head out into the frigid New York evening. A taxi has been hired to take us downtown, to another screening, so we can talk while we’re in traffic. Hearing my British accent, Landis volunteers that he “a notable boy” at his old school in London. “I got my long pants in the Upper Four.” He likes the line enough to repeat it.
As a child, he rarely settled in one place for long. His father was posted to the Philippines, Hong Kong, London, Paris and Brussels. The first things Landis ever forged were cancellation marks on Weimar Republic stamps, which he and his friends in Brussels collected, because used stamps traded at a higher value. “You know how kids are: once they’ve pulled one over on another kid, they have to tell ‘em,” he says. “I swindled my two friends and then I told them. They were real impressed.”
Landis makes his facsimiles with materials that he buys at hardware and hobby shops. He does oils, watercolours and pencil drawings, stains new boards with instant coffee, paints over photocopies from museum catalogues and sometimes uses felt tip pens if the result looks right to the naked eye. His gift for replicating artistic style is uncanny, but his forgeries can’t withstand professional inspection, particularly when they are exposed to ultraviolet light, which auction houses use to detect restorations.
Posing as Father John Scott, Steven Gardiner, Martin Lynley or John Grauman, Landis duped some of the most respected art museums in America – more than forty in all, from California to Massachusetts. Gifts are subject to less scrutiny than works offered for sale. It is the donor’s responsibility to establish provenance, not the museum’s, and Landis was careful to provide forged receipts. But it is astonishing how few curators bothered to check.He was eventually rumbled by Matt Leininger, a tenacious registrar at the Cincinnati Museum of Art. Art & Craft’s second storyline follows Leininger’s obsessive quest to have him brought to account. As far as the FBI is the concerned, because Landis never asked for money or claimed a tax deduction for his gifts, he committed no crime.
Harvard Law fellow Britt Cramer wrote a paper arguing that Landis caused enough social harm to warrant private prosecution, but none of the museums he gulled has taken her up. Even Leininger has admitted defeat. Two years ago he helped to put on a solo show of Landis’s work, under the title Faux Real. A current touring exhibition, Intent to Deceive, hangs Landis fakes alongside paintings by master forgers who set out to get rich and ended up dead or in jail, including John Myatt, Elmyr de Hory and Eric Hebborn.
“The respect is completely undeserved, because really I don’t have much talent,” says Landis. “It’s like a magic trick. Some magic tricks that are very simple have baffled Nobel Prize winners, but once it’s explained, you never look at it the same.”
He no longer paints the Valtat. He has given up forging Walt Disney drawings. “What’s the point if you can’t do anything with them?” He’ll copy an old master if someone asks, and takes commissions at marklandisoriginal.com for “children and kittens and puppies” in an Impressionist style. That people want paintings in his own name has been a great boost to his self-esteem.
Shortly before the premiere, Landis met actress Rosanna Arquette on the street. “That was a big thing for me, because when I was young, I thought she was the prettiest actress,” he tells me excitedly. Although she couldn’t make it to the screening, she had heard of him, and seemed thrilled to meet such a gifted forger. Before she left, she asked him to paint her a Basquiat.