Art and Craft
As most of us amateur ethicists
have come to realize, it’s one thing to break one of the Ten Commandments.
But it creates a real dynamic when somebody breaks one so that
somebody else can break another.
There’s a reason that Jesus taught us to
pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” (Mt 6:13)
Mark Landis is a fifty-something
man with a scruffy white beard, who wears t-shirts with a size 38 regular
coat, and weighs 122 pounds. He’s
slightly stooped, and shuffles quietly when he walks, as if not wishing to
disturb someone. He
speaks very softly; almost unintelligibly, in kind of a little-boy whine.
He seems to possess this antisocial affect,
where he doesn’t look you in the eye; he generally acts and reacts like
he’s on lithium, and maybe he is.
He admits he was institutionalized at 18, when
his father died, and shows us his internal evaluation there, where they
throw around words like “paranoid” and “schizophrenic” and
“catatonic,” but he seems almost proud of that, as if to say “see how
far I’ve come since then.”
What he’s been doing since
then is living with his mother, who died a couple of years ago.
He’s now occupying her apartment in
, and driving around her red Cadillac.
The apartment is strewn with clutter, on every
surface, including the floor.
There’s always a television blaring, usually
on the classic movie stations (Mark often quotes lines from old movies,
sometimes referencing, sometimes inferring they are his own.)
Why should we be so interested in this
obviously dysfunctional nerdy loner?
Because he possesses one world-class talent:
he is amazingly adept at duplicating works of
fact, he’s so good at it that museums have been routinely displaying his
imitations as authentic for years.
It was a powerful combination of the incisive
force of his deceit with the lusty greed of the museum curators.
His breaking the 9th
commandment, and lying about his work, played into the museums’ eagerness
to break the 10th
commandment, about coveting what wasn’t theirs, which in turn broke the 8th
commandment, stealing the public’s trust.
Mark Landis would studiously
copy famous art works, like a Monet or a Picasso.
His methods and techniques varied; sometimes he would begin with a
simple photocopy of the masterpiece, taken from an art history book, and
then he’d paint on top of it.
(As it turns out, this simple trick can be
detected with a routine black light inspection, but apparently many museums
were more than happy not to conduct their due diligence.)
Sometimes Mr. Landis would use colored pencils
instead of the original charcoal and pastel, and sometimes he would
painstakingly imitate a drawing line by line, in precise proportions.
Yes, this requires considerable artistic talent
in its own right, to be able to handle brushes and pencils and paints with
such precision, including mixing and shading and texture.
It’s actually amazing to watch Mr. Landis at
once the fake was completed, he would then call up an unsuspecting museum
curator, usually in the South (because he thought they would be less
discerning?), and carry his carefully-crafted copy straight to the Director,
with some convincing story about how his deceased Mother purchased it long
ago, or his dead sister Emily left it to him (Mark Landis has no sister).
And now he wants only to donate this prize
original to the museum.
Many curators were only too glad to accept the
unexpected windfall, and many even wrote him thank-you notes complete with
seven-figure assessments of the painting’s true worth.
Of course, in reality they were worth nothing,
because they were very clever forgeries.
But Mark Landis walked away chuckling to
himself, even as the curators were congratulating themselves on their good
fortune and superior management skills.
Except for one curator, Matthew Leininger, at
the time in
, who became so obsessed with tracking down Mr. Landis that
he eventually lost his job at the museum, and became a househusband.
And at the end the same museum actually shows a
retrospective of Mr. Landis’ unique talents?
Stranger than fiction.
And strangely compelling, even without any “name” actors.
This is an act that played successfully for
years before anybody even noticed the serial deception.
Apparently, according to a retired FBI agent,
there was no crime committed, since no money changed hands.
But now that we’ve all been duped, we wonder
how often that’s happened in the art world without it yet being uncovered.
Or if it ever will.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the
Parish Associate, Woodhaven Presbyterian Church,