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How a fake masterpiece ended up on walls of Florida museum

What drove Mark Landis to paint fake masterpieces — and why did the Boca Museum hang one of them up?


Mark Landis dressed in a faded black blazer, tucked a small, square piece of art into his black valise, and set off from Mississippi to meet with the directors of the Boca Museum of Art.

The museum was expecting a wealthy philanthropist.

Landis traveled by Greyhound bus.

When he arrived in Boca Raton that December of 2002, the senior curator at the time, Wendy Blazier, was eager to meet him. That summer, he had enticed her with a gift.

He sent a letter to the museum saying he had a rare drawing from the avant-garde French artist Marie Laurencin he wanted to donate. He listed several others he planned to give, including a work from Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, whose work is renowned the world over.

And then there was this: He didn’t want to be paid for the artwork. Didn’t even want a write-off for his taxes, which most donors demand. He simply wanted the piece hung in memory of his father, the late Navy Lt. Cmdr. Arthur Landis Jr.

But why Boca, she’d asked him. What was his tie to the city?

“He said when he met me, he would reveal the connection,” Blazier recalls.

Blazier was used to eccentrics. But even by those standards, Landis is memorable 13 years later.

“It was such a strange and interesting encounter,” she said. “He was so odd.”

Landis, a hunched and slender figure with pale skin and ears that jut out — “like a little elf, a leprechaun,” he said later of himself — spoke softly and haltingly. He digressed into dozens of topics, half-finished sentences, quoted from antiquated films and ’60s television shows such as “The Saint,” and shuffled along like a man twice his age.

He was in a cold sweat the entire time, Blazier remembers, and told her he’d been ill.

Landis asked Blazier to see exactly where the museum might hang his donation, and they took him to the upstairs gallery. The museum had several Laurencin works and thought Landis’ donation— a 7 ¼ inch-by-4 ¾ inch charcoal drawing — would fit perfectly in their collection of 20th century artists.

He unzipped the drawing from his valise, already framed. He handed it over, signed a contract to donate four other pieces of art, and promised he would be back in touch to deliver those future gifts.

He never did.

And there were two things he didn’t tell them about the drawing that hung in the Boca gallery on and off until 2011: It was a fake — and he was the one who forged it.

‘I wanted to impress my mother’

Mark Landis would be exposed as one of the most prolific art forgers in the country. It’s estimated he gave more than 100 works to at least 49 different museums in the United States over the last 30 years.

His quirky tale — and the story of the art museum official who dedicated himself to exposing Landis — is told in the documentary “Art and Craft,” which was chosen for the Tribeca Film Festival last year.

On Oct. 19, the Boca Museum of Art will screen the film and show the Laurencin forgery for one day only before returning it to storage. Landis won’t be there, but he remembers the work.

“Oh, I’ve done a lot of those. They’re small,” he said on the phone from his home in Laurel, Miss.

Landis was an only child in a military family, the opposite of his tough and rugged naval officer father. He was small and sickly, but had an eye for drawing. He spent most of his time indoors, alone. Offbeat in the way he dealt with people — he often looks at the floor, shyly, and speaks so softly as to practically whisper — he never was good at making friends.

Instead, he drew, copying pictures out of books. His first came from a clothing catalog when he was 8.

Landis drew to the delight of his mother, Joan Green Gardiner, and even attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But he never graduated. Rather than create original work, he preferred to copy.

His first forgery was a picture of an Indian he copied out of a book. He signed it as the late Maynard Dixon, whose work focused on cowboys and Indians. He donated the work to the Oakland Museum of California. The curator and staff lavished attention on him — the first hit of a drug he could not resist. What he so longed for all his life, the attention and friendship of others, he gained by doing something he was good at.

He soon started forging other works and donating them to museums around the country. It has never been proven that he asked for any kind of monetary exchange, so he has never been charged with a crime. He only asked that his donations be presented in his mother’s or father’s name. He then showed the letters of donation to his mother.

“I wanted to impress my mother by being a big philanthropist,” he said. “And everyone was so nice to me. I enjoyed being treated like royalty. I got addicted to it.”

He drove around the country in his mother’s red, late model Cadillac, posing as everything from a collector of French provenance to a Jesuit priest, since, he said, many wealthy families had a middle-born son who went into the priesthood.

It’s what brought him to Boca Raton. He would go to the library and find reference books listing the country’s museums and what their collections centered on. He tailored his donation, in this case a self-portrait from the 20th century artist Laurencin, who palled around with Picasso and was part of the Cubist movement, to the museum’s area of concentration. Then, he promised further works, which is what hooked them.

‘What a bizarre story!’

Wendy Blazier, now retired from the Boca Museum, laughs when she recalls her meeting with Landis.

“He was eccentric and quirky. Very quirky,” she said.

He never did tell Blazier why he chose the Boca museum. Landis just liked vacationing in Florida — “I was working my way through Florida,” he said — and made several trips there over the years. He donated another forgery to Sarasota’s Ringling Museum.

“With an impish smile, he said he didn’t want to explain what his connection to Boca was,” Blazier said — not until she agreed to fly to Mississippi, meet his mother in Hattiesburg and introduce herself as the museum’s senior curator who had accepted his philanthropic gift. She put off the trip.

Here, Blazier breaks into uncontrollable cackling.

“What an interesting, bizarre story!” she said. “We were just trying to find out more about this guy.”

In the meantime, they hung the Laurencin copy between two of her actual works. It was appropriately signed “ML” — ostensibly for Marie Laurencin — but was a Mark Landis original.

Why did he do it?

“I may have been mental,” he said. “I may be mental. But I’m not crazy.”

What he craved was human connection. Landis — who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression, and was once in a catatonic state, according to the film “Art and Craft” — had trouble meeting people. Being a fake philanthropist was his only interaction with the world.

“I always admired the wealthy philanthropists,” Landis said. “If I could have just one wish, it would be to be rich so I could donate art.”

What made Landis so unique was how prolific he was, a human Xerox machine.

His grandfather had been a vice president at an automobile parts factory, and Landis applied that assembly-line strategy to his art. He often lined up canvases and painted several fakes at a time.

“I’m really not much good as an artist,” he says, although some he fooled lavished praise on his technical ability. “I just had a facility for copying things. I don’t think of myself as an artist. I’m only just a hack.”

‘He had no malice in him’

But in May of 2008, “he messed with the wrong guy,” said Matt Leininger, who oversaw the curatorial department as the registrar of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

Landis met with Leininger and donated several items, including a watercolor signed by Louis Valtat, a Matisse contemporary. As Leininger researched the items — two paintings and a chalk drawing — he found one duplicate at another museum. And when he peeled back the layers of the chalk drawing, he saw new, white paper and smelled the instant coffee Landis used to give the drawing its aged look.

The Oklahoma City Museum had taken down a Renoir to hang the fake Valtat.

Leininger rushed to put the word out on an email list serve for other museum registrars, and within the first hour, more than 20 emailed him to say they had received donations from Landis. But word was slow to get out.

Leininger kept a paper trail on Landis that went back as far as 30 years in a dossier more than 100 pages thick.

“The guy is smart. He’s intelligent. He knows exactly what he was doing,” Leininger said from his home in Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, the Marie Laurencin hung at the Boca Museum. It would show there for another two years before the story of Landis and Leininger broke in The New York Times on Jan. 12, 2011. On Jan. 13, the fake Laurencin came down.

“It was put up without research and that was a mistake, but it was an honest mistake,” said Blazier, sanguine about the affair. “He had no malice in him. It was just a lark. He was making himself happy and thinking he was honoring his parents.”

Leininger can still rattle off several of the aliases Landis used: Steven Gardiner (his mother’s maiden name), Father Arthur Scott (a Jesuit priest), Father James Brantley (his father’s actual name), Marc Landois (a French iteration) and Martin Linley.

Master forgers try to match materials the original artist would have used, down to the pigments, oils and canvas stretchers. Master forgeries try, in every way, to become the original work.

But Landis used colored pencils from Hobby Lobby, frames from Walmart, and aged the canvases and paper he used with instant coffee. They fooled the eye, but would never stand up to scrutiny. No one other than Leininger had ever bothered to look so closely.

“That was his con: He made his story good enough and the pieces good enough to fool people,” Leininger said.

‘I’m getting better’ at art

He tried to get Landis to stop. He even helped curate a 2012 show at the University of Cincinnati, “Faux Real,” hoping the attention would spread the word of Landis’ deeds and also give him enough attention to stop forging.

The hunt for Landis became a personal obsession, Leininger said. (He still gets Google alerts whenever Landis’ name pops up in the news, “in case he goes at it again,” Leininger said.) He was hired as Chief Registrar of the Cincinnati Art Museum in his hometown in 2009 but was later told to stop discussing the Landis case. When he didn’t, he was fired, and later won a wrongful-termination suit. He is out of museum work altogether, a pariah for exposing a man who embarrassed some in the art world.

Meanwhile, Landis has found another outlet for his forgery.

The curator of an exhibit focusing on successful forgers, “Intent to Deceive,” which came to the defrauded Ringling Museum in Sarasota last year, helped Landis set up a website where people can send un-copyrighted photographs that Landis can reproduce as drawings or paintings.

His works sell from $350 for an 8-by-10-inch charcoal or pencil drawing to $1,000 for a full color oil-on-canvas painting. Part of the money goes toward the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The goal is to keep Landis entertained and away from the forgery game.

Each of the “Art and Craft” filmmakers said they have several drawings and paintings Landis has done of their children.

“It gives him pleasure to do some good in the world,” said co-director Mark Becker. “He enjoys being engaged in the world and having a chance to contribute.”

At 60, he is, in a way, finally producing original work. “And I’m getting better,” Landis said.

“He has risen, and I have fallen,” Leininger laments. He now works in the fulfillment department for Amazon, which produced an internal newsletter story on their famous new employee.

“I just ask myself to this day, ‘Lord, why was I the one to find Landis?’ ” Leininger said.

Museums still contact Leininger and ask what to do with the fakes they discover. He tells them they can destroy them if they want. They have no cash value.

But Leininger prefers they keep the forgeries and use them as educational tools for staff and the public, which is what the Boca Museum has done.

“We’re definitely going to keep it,” said Martin Hanahan, the museum’s chief registrar. “What really is the damage, besides some bruised egos?”

Mark Landis is finally getting the attention he craved, at the cost of blowing his cover. But that’s no guarantee he’s reformed.

“I think Mark Landis’ story is not over,” said Sam Cullman, the film’s co-director. “Will he do it again? It’s an open question.”



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