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.” (Matthew 6:13)
Mark Landis is a 50-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. Words are thrown around 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.”
After that he lived with his mother until she died a couple of years ago. He’s now occupying her apartment in Laurel, Mississippi, and driving 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 art. In 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 (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 work. Once the fake was completed, he would 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 a convincing story about how his deceased mother purchased it long ago or that 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 Cincinnati, 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.
Ronald P. Salfen is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.