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  • Writer's pictureVan Weyenbergh Fine Art

5 biggest counterfeiters in art history

1/ Hans van Meegeren, the Vermeer more real than life

"I painted it myself. I painted them all…" To escape the death penalty, incurred for selling Dutch treasures to the German enemy during the Second World War, Han van Meegeren had spat out the piece. A gifted portrait painter, he had mounted the biggest scam of false works by Dutch masters, using, with the help of an accomplice restorer of paintings, pigments and period supports. His true-to-life Vermeers had even duped the Nazi leader Hermann Göring, the purchaser of a Marie-Madeleine washing the feet of Christ for 1,650,000 guilders. Except that at the trial, nobody believed Han van Meegeren and the forger had to make a fake Vermeer under the eyes of specialists. The demonstration made, he was sentenced to one year in prison, the minimum sentence. Because of cancer, he will never purge it.

2/ Fernand Legros, king of crooks

Rolls-Royce, monkey skin jacket, and big beard: Fernand Legros was a top scam! Son of an accountant, this king of mythomaniacs, cabaret dancer and sandman, made his fortune in the years 1960–1970. Legros sold false masterpieces to American billionaires, helped by Elmyr de Hory and Réal Lessard, who knew how to paint "like" Modigliani, Matisse, Picasso ... The trick? Obtain certificates of authenticity - usually after a good meal with lots of alcohol - from the families of artists and experts. On the run for many years, Legros has been at the center of several trials, all lost. Ruined, he ends his days in a village in Charente.

3/ John Myatt & John Drewe, English scam

This British duo sold between 1986 and 1995 more than 200 false paintings. Myatt made Chagall, Dubuffet, and Nicolas de Staël, and Drewe took care to shape their pedigree by polluting museum archives, reasoned catalogs like those auctions, with false documents. Drewe had also created Art Research Associates ... which provided expertise! The little game ends for John Myatt at Brixton prison, in the south of London, where the so-called "Picasso" will paint his fellow prisoners, before being released and ending up on television shows. John Drewe spent three years behind bars. Released, he plunges back into the scam.

4/ The Greenhalghs, a golden family

Between 1989 and 2006, in a pavilion in the suburbs of Manchester, Shaun Greenhalgh, an unemployed quadra living with dad and mom, but brilliant self-taught, made ceramics, paintings, and pieces of gold smithery from the Middle Ages. Egyptian Antiquity. Everything the art world wanted, the small family business Greenhalgh created it. In all, some 120 counterfeits that his retired parents, and his brother, sold on the art market. His biggest hit? Le Faune, which was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, a nugget for art historians: the first ceramic by Paul Gauguin, dated 1886! An error on an Assyrian bas-relief ended up putting the ear to Scotland Yard, who will send Shaun to prison for four years. What about business money? It disappeared.

5/ Wolfgang and Hélène Beltracchi, the Bonnie & Clyde of the painter's brush.

Raoul Dufy, Georges Braque, André Derain, but also Fernand Léger, Max Ernst, Van Dongen were his specialty. For almost thirty years, German Wolfgang Beltracchi has sold a famous catalog of moderns! The secret of this restaurateur's son? He imagines missing paintings. "Wolfgang has never copied; he has only invented," argued Hélène, his wife and accomplice. Wolfgang painted with period materials, aged the labels by soaking them in coffee, and Hélène posed in early 20th-century costume amid the canvases. The couple could thus tell that their works came from a heritage. Unmasked in 2010 because of an anachronistic pigment on a Campendonk, Wolfgang Beltracchi has been released from prison since 2015. He works to repay his debts as an artist!


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