It was a warm summer day in 2007 when the stranger showed up unannounced at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Four months earlier the museum’s registrar, Matthew Leininger, had received a package from one Walter Augustus Landis containing a watercolour by the French Modernist Louis Valtat of two boys playing on the beach, as well as a letter promising that more pieces were on the way. Leininger was ecstatic.
Small museums like his rarely heard from donors with such expansive collections. That hardly prepared him for Landis’ arrival. Dressed in a long black overcoat and clunky shoes that looked a size too big, Landis was a strange-looking man, with the stooped gait of a hunchback, pallid skin, and jug ears. Still, Leininger was impressed by his encyclopedic knowledge of art. “Truthfully, he reminded me of Rain Man,” says Leininger. “I felt like I could have dropped a box of matchsticks and he could have told me how many there were.”
It was no accident that Landis had come to Oklahoma. While larger museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, carefully vet donations, smaller institutions often accept art at face value, inspecting it only upon installation, if at all.
“We thought this was a genuine donor,” Leininger recalls. “He promised more work, more money. We thought, ‘This is fantastic. Let’s put this on display.’” Only later would Leininger learn that Landis wasn’t a donor at all, and the painting sitting on his desk was a fake. He had just been had by one of the most prolific – and strangest – art forgers in history.
About halfway between Atlanta and New Orleans, on a winding road that cuts through the backwoods of Mississippi, stands the tiny town of Laurel. Built on timber and oil money, the downtown is now little more than a sorry collection of sun-bleached brick buildings, sagging and worn.
Past the rusting gate of a retirement community, in an apartment that carries the sweet scent of Camel cigarettes, Mark Landis sits on a twin bed, hunched over a painting. It is in this room that Landis completed many of the forgeries he’s given to art museums from San Francisco to Chicago over a 20-year period, a spree the world’s most renowned art detective, former FBI agent Robert Wittman, has said is unlike anything he’s ever seen. While no one knows the value of Landis’ fakes (because he never sold them), it is likely he’s responsible for more than half a million dollars’ worth of art fraud. Some of his fakes have yet to be discovered.
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