Eight of the Greatest Forgers of the 20th Century

Eight of the Greatest Forgers of the 20th Century

Stephanie Schoppert - November 21, 2016

When it comes to making a quick buck or trying to change how history is remembered few do it in quite the way that forgers do. It takes immense skill and knowledge to get someone to believe a forgery whether it is forging checks, historical documents, diaries or famous works of art, there is a dedication to the craft that is rarely found in any other type of crime. These forgers of the 20th century were able to fool the world…for a while at least. Some made millions, others found themselves in prison and a few just made a name for themselves in the history books. Click through the list to see some of the greatest forgers (and their forgeries) of the 20th century.

Han Van Meegerean Painted Himself Out of a Death Sentence

Eight of the Greatest Forgers of the 20th Century

Han Van Meegeren was a Dutch painter who tried his hand at a successful art career around the turn of the century. He enjoyed painting in the style of the old Dutch masters and he had quite the skill for it. But by 1928, taste in paintings had changed and people we looking for more modern art styles rather than works done as the old Dutch masters. Critics began to pan Han van Meegeren as having no originality or skill outside of copying the work of others.

To that end van Meegeren decided to show the world that he could not only copy the Dutch masters but he could produce works of art that were even better than what the old masters had produced. He spent six years in study practicing his methods for copying the works of Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Gerad ter Borch and Johannes Vermeer. He was successful and by the end of his self-imposed period of study he was creating works of art that were passing as originals. He started to sell his forgeries with even experts in the field crediting them as originals and previously unknown works of art by the old masters.

However, when the war came one of van Meegeren’s agents ended up selling one of his Vermeer forgeries to the Nazis. When it was discovered in an Austrian salt mine along with other looted Nazi art, experts traced the unknown Vermeer back to van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was then charged with selling Dutch cultural artifacts to the enemy, a crime punishable by death. With a stiff penalty over his head, van Meegeren confessed that the Vermeer was actually a forgery and therefore he had not sold Dutch cultural property. To prove his innocence, he painted another forgery in front of experts, revealing his secrets and that the Vermeer was a fake. Instead of death he was sentenced to one year in prison but he suffered a heart attack and died before his sentence could be carried out.

Konrad Kujau Hitler Diaries

Eight of the Greatest Forgers of the 20th Century

Konrad Kujau was born in Germany in 1938 and he grew up impassioned by the Nazi cause. He spent his life struggling and always just on the edge of poverty which led him to always be looking for the next way to get ahead. He went from being a bar owner to owning a cleaning business. In the 1960s, he got his start forging luncheon papers and forging a new identity for himself which landed him in prison in 1968 when a routine check of his lodgings discovered the false identity.

In 1970 things changed when he visited family in East Germany. He found that even though it was against the law, many locals had Nazi memorabilia. Konrad Kujau realized that he could buy the memorabilia for cheap in East Germany and then take it across the border to the West where he could sell it at ten times the price. This was an illegal practice but Konrad was only caught once and had no penalty other than having the goods confiscated. Once he set up shop selling the goods, he realized that he could make even more money if he added prestige to the items by forging documents that claimed they belonged to someone significant. He learned to copy the handwriting of a number of Nazi officials and even started forging paintings that he claimed were Hitler’s.

Konrad Kujau found a big payday when he decided to forge a series of Hitler diaries. The forgeries were poorly done but in 1978 he sold his first forged diary. In 1980 he was contacted by a journalist named Gerd Heidemann who offered DM 2.5 million for the additional 61 volumes that Kujau had. Heidemann in turn sold the volumes for DM 9 million to his employers at Stern. Upon publication of the diaries it was finally discovered that they were fake and Kujau was arrested. He was sentenced to 4 and a half years in prison.

Mark Hofmann Morman Forger

Eight of the Greatest Forgers of the 20th Century

Mark Hofmann is credited as one of the most accomplished document forgers in history. He is also one of the most brutal forgers as he turned to murder when his fraud was close to being uncovered. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah and followed the LDS Church until he lost faith around the age of 14. He studied pre-med, got married and had four children. But his life took a very different turn in 1980.

In 1980 he claimed that he had found a 17th century King James Bible that had a strange paper tucked inside. Hofmann claimed that the paper was the Anthon Transcript which was believed to be proof that the Book of Morman existed and it was purchased by the LDS church for $20,000. With the successful sale of his first forgery, he dropped out of school and started a business as a dealer in rare books.

In 1981 he forged a document that brought the succession of the church into question. Both the LDS church and RLDS Church scrambled for the document with Hofmann selling it to the LDS church for $20,000 while also releasing it to the press. He continued to forge documents including the Salamander Letter, a letter from Joseph Smith’s mother and other documents that were relevant to the LDS church. He made his forgeries out of greed and a desire to embarrass the church.

The scheme started to fall apart when he fell into debt due to a lavish lifestyle and therefore tried to sell more forged documents that he was not in possession of or documents that people questioned authenticity of. In order to buy time from those who were after him for money he started constructing bombs to get rid of those he owed money to or who might discover his forgeries. His bombs killed two people and he was arrested in 1986 on 27 different counts. In 1988 he was sentenced to 5 years to life in prison.

Lawrence X. Cusack JFK Papers

Eight of the Greatest Forgers of the 20th Century

Lawrence X. Cusack was responsible for trying rewrite the way that America and the world remembers John F. Kennedy. In 1997 Lawrence X. Cusack produced a number of documents which he claimed had once belonged to his father. His father having been an attorney who had once represented the mother of Marilyn Monroe. To that end the documents featured evidence of an affair between John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

Cusack for his part was living as lavish a lifestyle as one could imagine, spending as much as $50,000 a month and having 11 luxury cars. The money came from the $7 million that he got from the sale of the 200 different documents that he claimed once belonged to John F. Kennedy. Seymour Hersh wrote an expose on the Kennedys which he called The Dark Side of Camelot. He vouched for all the documents and even showed them to ABC. The papers and the book landed Hersh a $2 million deal with ABC.

But when ABC got a closer look at the documents and had experts compare times and details, the forgery was discovered. On the day the special featuring the documents was set to air, ABC instead aired a 20/20 special that involved confronting Cusack about the forgeries. Cusack went to trial, all the while claiming that the documents were real. He was convicted of 13 different counts of fraud which came with a sentence of 10 years in prison. His crime would have normally only carried a 5-year sentence but due to the large amount of money lost by investors, the misrepresentation of history and the tarnishing of the Kennedy name, the sentence was increased.

Tom Keating Art Forger

Eight of the Greatest Forgers of the 20th Century

When it comes to forging art, there are few that even come close to that of Tom Keating. He got his start working for an art restorer named Fred Roberts. Roberts did not have the same ethics as other restorers and would have Tom Keating simply repaint areas that were damaged. Keating created his first forgery after talking down the skill of Frank Moss Bennett. Roberts challenged Keating to recreate one of Bennett’s paintings, which he did. Keating then continued to study Bennett until he felt he knew the artist so well that he could create his own original work in Bennett’s style. He did so and signed his name. When Roberts saw the painting, he changed the signature to that of Frank Moss Bennett and sold it to an art gallery.

Keating started coping other artists and their works and decided to use his skill to rebel against the art world. He felt that the gallery system was dominated by critics and dealers who only sought to get rich off of poor artists. In all his artworks he left time bombs, clues that very clearly exposed the paintings as forgeries, whether it was deliberately adding flaws, using materials only known in the 20th century or writing on the canvas in a way that the writing would only show up under x-ray. However, the forgeries were still not discovered right away.

In 1970, auctioneers found that there were 13 Samuel Palmer watercolor paintings for sale and they all depicted the same theme. This was a red flag to Geraldine Norman who was a Times of London salesroom correspondent. She looked into the paintings and had them tested by a specialist who declared the paintings were fake. It was through a tip given by the brother of Keating’s lover that Geraldine Norman discovered the truth and had Keating arrested.

Shaun Greenhalgh Art Forger

Eight of the Greatest Forgers of the 20th Century

Shaun Greenhalgh has been called one of the most diverse forgers in history. He was born in 1961 and left school at the age of 16 with no qualifications. He was a self-taught artist who used his knowledge from working as an antiques dealer to create immaculate forgeries. He was able to carve, paint and sculpt well enough to pass off his pieces as originals. He enlisted the help of his parents to approach clients and his brother to manage the money. They were necessary additions as Shaun was much too shy to speak on the phone to try and sell the forgeries himself.

The most impressive forgery that Shaun completed was that of a Amarna statue. The family bought a catalog in 1999 that detailed an auction that took place in 1892 that sold eight Egyptian figures belonging to the Earl Egremont. In 2002 the family approached the Bolton museum claiming that the Amarna statue was one of the eight figures that was purchased at that auction by a relative. In 2003 after consulting experts the museum purchased the statue for £439,767.

The family sold numerous pieces and made the tidy fortune for themselves but it was not to last. In 2005 the family tried to sell three Assyrian reliefs which they claimed came from the Palace of Sennacherib in 600 B.C. and were purchased at the same auction as the Amarna statute. The British museum was willing to buy one of the pieces but when the pieces were offered to the Bonhams auction house they were spotted as fakes. The auction house contacted the British Museum and the museum, upon realizing the fake, contacted Scotland Yard. The family was arrested 18 months later. There was only 120 known forgeries by the family and it is believed that there are others still out there.

Frank Abagnale Jr.

Eight of the Greatest Forgers of the 20th Century

Frank Abagnale Jr. was so skilled at forging that he not only got to work as an FBI consultant but he had a movie made about his exploits and he was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. He got his start in forging at the age of 15 when he started writing checks on his own overdrawn account. When the bank came after him for payment he created new accounts at other banks and created new identities to go with the new accounts. He even started printing his own payroll checks to deposit and would then ask banks to advance him cash based on his account balance.

When Abagnale decided that he wanted to fly he found a way to pass as an airline pilot by forging an employee ID and a pilot’s license. He started flying with Pan Am by deadheading about a million miles from the ages of 16 to 18. He was able to stay in hotels and eat at nice restaurants while billing everything to the company. He moved on to acting as a doctor when he feared his scheme with Pan Am was going to get him caught. He worked as a supervisor at a hospital until he realized that his lack of knowledge was putting people at risk. He moved on to working as an attorney by forging a Harvard degree and passing the Louisiana bar exam.

By the time he was caught in 1969 he was wanted for fraud in 12 countries. He served six months in horrible prison conditions in France, then moved on to Sweden where he served six months again. He was then deported to the U.S. where he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. After less than five years in prison, he was released on the condition that he help the federal authorities investigate fraud and scam artists. He eventually founded Abagnale & Associates which advises companies on fraud issues and the successful company has made him a legal millionaire.

Wolfgang Beltracchi Art Forger

Eight of the Greatest Forgers of the 20th Century

Wolfgang Beltracchi is a German art forger whose claim to fame was forging hundreds of paintings and selling them for millions. He is called the forger of the century though there are a few that may call him the “Robin Hood of art.” For three and a half decades he painted 300 paintings in the style of the greatest artists in history including Picasso, Gauguin and Monet. He would sign them as originals and museums and collectors alike would be thrilled to purchase them. Beltracchi would actually have his wife do the work of selling the paintings. The pair had a decent story of provenance and even tried to create old-looking photos to back up their provenance stories.

His forgeries were so good that even the best museums in the world would not spot the fake. The widow of painter Max Ernst even came forward and said Beltracchi’s painting was her husband’s most beautiful forest painting. It is likely that the truth would have never been discovered if it would not have been for a single mistake. Beltracchi was creating a work by Heinrich Campendonk from 1914, but he mistakenly used titanium white a color that was not available in 1914. He was sentenced to 6 years in prison for the forgeries and his wife was sentenced to four. The pair were allowed to leave the prison to work as long as they returned at night.

Wolfgang Beltracchi now only paints under his own name and now due to the fame of his forgeries he is a highly sought after artist. His paintings have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars but most of that money has gone toward paying off the $20 million that he has been ordered to pay back. Despite the forgeries that Beltracchi has admitted, it is believed that there could be hundreds more out there and museums either don’t know or won’t reveal that they have a fake. Admitting to a fake would not only be an embarrassment to the museum but it would mean losing millions in the value of the painting.