If you ask some French philosophers, nothing in this world is real. In the world of law enforcement, though, things are a little different. Forgery is one of the most interesting and intellectual of all crimes, with crooks exercising incredible artistic and creative talents to make fakes for big bucks. In this feature, we’ll explore ten of the most believable and ambitious forgeries of all time and reveal how they were accomplished and exposed.
The David Stein Forgeries
One of the most prolific and successful art forgers of the 1960s was David Stein, an Egyptian-born painter who specialized in knocking off dozens of European masters. He made a great living traveling from city to city, peddling his inauthentic paintings, but was busted in 1967 when Marc Chagall went into a New York City gallery and discovered three paintings with his name on them that he hadn’t painted. The police tracked Stein down and arrested him, but many of the art dealers he swindled refused to testify against him because it would make their names public and imply that they didn’t know enough about art to tell a real from a fake. After getting out of jail in 1989, Stein painted under his own name, but couldn’t escape the lure of forgery’s quick money, soon selling a number of fraudulent Andy Warhol collages to the Museum of Modern Art.
Howard Hughes’ Autobiography
Few people captured the public’s attention quite like reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes. After coming to success in the aviation industry and Hollywood, Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder forced him into a bizarre life of isolation, being tended to by male Mormon nurses and communicating with nobody but trusted aides. So the opportunity was rife for a smart person to cash in, and that’s exactly what author Clifford Irving did. In 1970, Irving approached publishing companies with forged letters from Hughes claiming that he was authorized to write Hughes’ biography. McGraw-Hill bought the book for $765,000 and Irving began writing, confident that Hughes wouldn’t come out of hiding to refute his claims. He thought wrong, as Hughes scheduled a teleconference in January 1972 to denounce Irving and claim he’d never met him. Irving was tried for fraud and spent 17 months in prison.
The Cardiff Giant
Archaeological forgeries are some of the most difficult to pull off. In addition to making sure the work looks visually consistent with the period you’re trying to fake, you also have lots of scientific tests to fool. It was easier to do back in the old days, though, so we got things like the Cardiff Giant. In 1869, two workers digging a well on a farm in upstate New York discovered the mummified body of a giant prehistoric humanoid. Once exhumed, it became a sensation, with people coming from all over the country to peek at this ten-foot-tall petrified man. The whole thing was a big scam, though — the Giant was actually carved from gypsum and artificially aged before being buried. It drew such crowds that P.T. Barnum offered to buy it, and when he was rebuffed, he illegally made a plaster replica and claimed that it was the real one! The giant’s perpetrator, a New York tobacconist named George Hull, confessed to his scam in late 1869.
The Elmyr de Hory Forgeries
Some forgers are content with just one big scam, pocketing the funds from one work of art and then vanishing before anybody can discover the hoax. Others, though, turn making fakes into a lifestyle. Hungarian painter Elmyr de Hory came to Paris in the early 1940s to pursue his dreams of making a career of fine art, but quickly wound up out of money. One thing he did discover was that he had a knack for copying works of other, more famous painters. In 1946, he sold a Picasso copy to a friend who mistook it for an original, and a new career was born. De Hory executed and sold more than 1,000 forgeries in his life, works in the style of Picasso, Renoir, Matisse and others. In 1964, after almost two decades of ripping off paintings, he was caught by Interpol and his business shattered. Collectors all over the world were horrified to discover that many of their paintings were worthless. Facing extradition to France, de Hory committed suicide in 1976.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
This is a forgery that had an incredible impact on the course of human history — and entirely for the worse. Between 1897 and 1903, an anonymous Russian (possibly associated with the Secret Police) produced a small pamphlet that claimed to be the minutes of a meeting of world Jewish business leaders that were planning to conquer the world. The Protocols spread like wildfire, with credulous anti-Semites reprinting them as gospel fact. One of the most famous promulgators of the forgery was automotive legend Henry Ford, who paid for half a million copies to be printed in English. "The Times of London" exposed the forgery in 1921, finding the French book that much of the language was lifted from, but by then, the damage had been done.
The interesting thing about forgeries is that they’re not just perpetrated by nobodies. Some of the most famous artists in history actually dabbled in imitation art from time to time. One notorious case involved Michaelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni, the Renaissance painter, sculptor and engineer who laid the foundation for much of what we now know as Western art. Early on in his career, though, he was just some schlub trying to make his bones in Rome. In 1496, the artist sculpted a cherubic statue of Cupid, the god of desire, and rubbed it with corrosive dirt to artificially age it. He then claimed it had been an ancient artifact and sold it. While his fraud was eventually found out, it just drew attention to his impressive sculptural skills and led to him getting more commissioned work. Some guys have all the luck.
The Black Admiral
Sometimes forgeries are perpetrated for reasons other than financial. This painting, dated from the late 1800s, depicts an African-American man in the U.S. naval uniform. This was a very uncommon occurrence of the time, and the painting — which was purchased by a private collector in the mid-'70s — quickly became famous and was used in a number of American history textbooks. One problem, though: The sailor wasn’t really black. When the owner decided to have it restored in 2006, he discovered that it was actually a painting of a white guy that had been painted over in the early '70s. It was then artificially aged so it looked like the new additions were done when the original painting was. The reasons behind this change, as well as the perpetrators, are unknown. The painting’s value dropped from an estimated $300,000 to $3,000 upon that discovery.
The Kinderhook Plates
Not to be discriminatory, but everybody knows that Mormonism was founded by a con man, right? Joseph Smith, the religion’s prophet, was a notorious yarn-spinner, and the church’s history is rife with hoaxes and forgeries. One of the most famous is the Kinderhook Plates, six engraved pieces of brass unearthed in upstate New York in 1843. The Plates were sent to Joseph Smith, who claimed to have “translated” them to discover the story of an ancient Egyptian who came to America. Unfortunately, a professor at Northwestern University got hold of the last remaining plate in 1980 and performed some metallurgical tests on it, revealing that they had been artificially aged with nitric acid. The discovery of a letter from one of the fraudsters confirmed the hoax, and the church was forced to admit that they were forgeries the following year.
The Niger Uranium Forgeries
Most of the forgeries on this list didn’t do anything but cost some rich people their money. However, the forgery of a set of documents in 2002 led to one of the biggest military quagmires of this century. After the events of September 11th, the Bush administration was looking for an excuse to go to war with long-time foe Iraq. They found it in an Italian intelligence memo from 2001 that claimed that Saddam Hussein’s government had approached African nation Niger with the intention of purchasing yellowcake uranium, an essential element of creating a nuclear bomb. That was enough for them to pull the trigger on a war that cost almost 4,500 American lives. In 2003, several different sources discovered the memo was forged — and badly, with the creator not even bothering to get the right names for several African government officials.
Next: The Mandatory Facts Machine
The Hitler Diaries
Literary forgeries are a unique branch of crime — they’re notoriously difficult to perpetrate and require some serious verbal chops. One of the most notorious was the case of the "Hitler Diaries." In 1983, German news magazine "Stern" paid nearly six million dollars to a man they knew as “Dr. Fischer” for 61 small books, each of them penned by Adolf Hitler from 1932 to 1945. Multiple handwriting experts authenticated the material, but within two weeks of publication they were exposed as forgeries perpetrated by a man named Konrad Kujau, who had previously forged some of Hitler’s art school paintings. Hilariously, six years after his death, Kujau’s niece was arrested for selling “fake forgeries” — bad copies of paintings that she’d put her uncle’s signature on!