Who were the most famous frauds of all time?
Ironically, they include some of the world's greatest poets and artists! There may be a
very thin line between "originality"
and plagiarism ... a fine line which depends upon how
artfully the artist conceals his/her sources. In any case, some forgers are
spectacularly talented individuals, as this page will attest ... although
perhaps not all the Elvis impersonators!
Famous Historical Beauties,
Famous Pool Sharks,
The Dumbest Things Ever Said,
Famous Hoaxes and Hucksters
Top Ten Frauds, Forgers and Hoaxes
(#9) Milli Vanilli (although most pop stars are imitating someone else: Little
Richard, James Brown, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, Madonna, et al.)
Rodney Dangerfield (he "borrowed" his most famous line from Henny Youngman)
George Harrison ("My Sweet Lord" was a rip-off of "He's So Fine" by the
T. S. Eliot (he said "Mature poets steal" and frequently followed his own
John Milton (or William Lauder?)
William Shakespeare (many of his plays were based on earlier works)
(#1) God and the Bible (was there really a perfect Garden of Eden, a
talking snake, a "Fall," a worldwide Flood, etc.)
"Before Elvis, there was nothing."—John Lennon
Dishonorable mention: Congress, Dick "the Penguin" Cheney, George W. Bush,
Bishop Willard Mitt "Etch-a-Sketch" Romney, Watergate, Richard "Tricky Dick"
Nixon, Cold Fusion, Piltdown Man, The Cardiff Giant, The Perpetual Motion
Machine, The Shroud of Turin, The Tasaday Tribe, Black Sox, Lance Armstrong,
Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, A-Rod, Steroid Monsters, Artificial
Breasts, Enron, Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth "Easy" Lay, Donald Trump, Balloon Boy,
Bernard Madoff, Lehman Brothers, Cendant, MF Global, WorldCom, Fannie Mae,
HealthSouth, Tyco International, Qwest Communications, Frederic Bourdin, James
Frey, Christophe Rocancourt, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, David Hampton, Frank
Abagnale, James Hogue, Christian Gerhartsreiter, Jan Hendrik Schön, Shinichi
Fujimura, The Great Moon Hoax, The Lamarckian Inheritance, The Sokal Affair, The
William Henry Ireland
Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564): Yes, the immortal Michelangelo whose art graces the
Sistine Chapel once resorted to forgery, or at least to deception. In 1496 at
the age of twenty, he tried to pass off his marble sculpture Sleeping Eros (aka
Sleeping Cupid) as an ancient Roman work in order to command a higher price. On
the advice of an art dealer, Michelangelo "aged"
then buried the sculpture in the dealer's yard, where it could be "discovered."
He then sold it to a dealer, Baldassare del Milanese, who in turn sold it to
Cardinal Riario of San Giorgio. When the Cardinal learned that he had been
duped, Michelangelo offered to buy the sculpture back from Baldassarre, but his
offer was refused: Baldassarre said he would rather destroy it. Ironically, the
forged Cupid helped established Michelangelo's reputation. It was later donated
by Cesare Borgia to Isabella d'Este. It was then was probably acquired by
Charles I of England when the Gonzaga collections were purchased and transported
to London in the seventeenth century. Unfortunately the Cupid was most likely
destroyed in the 1698 fire at the Palace of Whitehall.
William Henry Ireland (1775-1835) was nineteen when he started forging works of
Shakespeare in a misguided attempt to earn the approval of father, Samuel
Ireland, an avid antiquarian. By the spring of 1795, an army of London
intellectuals—including scholars, peers, a future bishop, James Boswell, even
England’s poet laureate—were tromping through Samuel Ireland's house like
knights errant in search of the Holy Grail. (Or were they more like Don
Quixotes?) They had come to see ancient-looking papers that William Henry
claimed to have found in an old trunk. Written in faded ink on yellowed paper,
they appeared to be deeds, letters, poems and other documents written and signed
by William Shakespeare. There was even a previously unknown play, Vortigern!
And it was longer than all the other plays of Shakespeare! What an incredible
find! James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s highly-esteemed biographer, actually
kissed one of the pages, saying, “I shall now die
contented, since I have lived to see the present day.” Even
though the forgeries had been hastily produced by a teenager who had been
a lackluster student, most of the people who inspected them saw only what they
wanted to see: the hand and genius of Shakespeare. Francis Webb, the Secretary
of the College of Heralds, declared ecstatically: “It either comes from his pen,
or from Heaven!” Sir Frederick Eden, an expert on old seals, pronounced one of
the deeds authentic, even identifying the image stamped in the seal directly
below "Shakespeare’s" signature (which the forger himself hadn’t even noticed)
as a medieval device called a quintain. From such experiences, William Henry
learned that all a forger needs to do is suggest a seemingly plausible story;
his victims will fill in the details. And some of the victims seemed to be
transported into realms of pure rapture. For instance,
Francis Webb told a friend: “These papers
bear not only the signature of his hand, but also the stamp of his soul, and the
traits of his genius.” James Boaden, a critic for The Oracle, was
equally smitten, writing: “The conviction produced upon our mind, is such as to
make all skepticism ridiculous.” But when the "new" play was performed, it was a
flop, and William Henry eventually came clean, although his father still refused
to believe him.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616): Was the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon himself a front for some other writer, or
writers? Ironically, there seems to be no evidence that the man many people consider to
be the greatest poet of all time ever owned a book, wrote a letter, or did more,
in terms of penmanship, than sign his name using
a mark or a ragged scrawl. This is why people became so excited when William
Henry Ireland started producing letters and other documents supposedly written
and signed by Shakespeare. The lack of any direct evidence that Shakespeare
owned even a single book, or wrote even a single letter in his own hand, coupled
with the fact that his will, written shortly before his death, mentions nothing
about the rights to any of his poems or plays, is almost unfathomable ... unless
he didn't actually write them himself. If this interests you, please click here
to learn Who actually wrote the
works of Shakespeare?
John Milton (1608-1674) or William Lauder (1680-1771)? Was John Milton, the
creator of Paradise Lost, a plagiarist? William Lauder certainly wanted
us to think so. In 1747 Lauder published essays in which he attempted to
"prove" that Milton had stolen large parts of his epic poem Paradise Lost from
various 17th-century poets. But it turned out that Lauder had forged the
"stolen" poems by "reverse engineering" text from Paradise Lost back into
fictitious "source documents." For some time, certain experts, including the
great Samuel Johnson, supported Lauder, but it eventually became became clear
that Lauder, not Milton, was the cheat. In the end, Johnson persuaded his former
friend to come clean and confess his crimes.
T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land," written in 1922, contains lines taken from
other writers' work, including that of Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare.
Eliot's character J. Alfred Prufrock is a rather blatant appropriation of
William Shakespeare's character Polonius. Eliot explained his method succinctly:
"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."
The melody of ex-Beatle George Harrison's song "My Sweet Lord" was found to be
so similar to "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons that it was considered to be
plagiarized. The case moved through the court system for years before monetary
damages were determined.
Rodney Dangerfield's signature line, "Take my wife ... please!" was lifted from
another stand-up comedian, Henny Youngman, ... even the pause.
Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770): William Wordsworth described Thomas Chatterton as the "marvellous Boy, /
The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a monody on Chatterton; Robert Southey edited his
poems; John Keats dedicated Endymion to him; Percy Bysshe Shelley
ranked Chatterton with Sir Philip Sidney as “inheritors of unfulfilled renown.”
Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Francis Thompson wrote about him.
George Meredith posed for Henry Wallis’s painting of Chatterton's death. Thus,
Chatterton became a Romantic myth through the glowing accolades of other
Romantic poets. But he is best known today for his “Rowley” poems, which he
attributed to a fifteenth-century Bristol priest, Thomas Rowley, who probably
didn't exist. Today the consensus opinion is that Thomas Chatterton invented
Rowley and wrote all the poems attributed to him.
Chatterton committed suicide in a London garret at the age of seventeen, the victim of
poverty and despair. He seems to have been the archetypal "starving artist" and
if he committed fraud it may have been merely in search of his next meal.
Elvis Impersonators: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Elvis
Presley must be the greatest performing artist of all time, because he certainly
is the most imitated. I will let Johnny Carson cast the deciding vote in this
case: "If life were fair, Elvis would be alive and his impersonators would be
dead." (Of course Johnny Carson has had his share of late-night impersonators as
Han van Meegeren (1889-1947): The Dutch forger's masterful work was uncovered after World
War II, when a previously unknown Johannes Vermeer painting turned up in the
collection of a high-ranking Nazi, Hermann Göring. The painting was traced back to Van Meegeren, who was charged with selling a Dutch national
treasure and collaborating with the enemy. Facing the possibility of the death
penalty, Van Meegeren confessed to forging the painting. But the work was so good
that he had to prove his guilt by forging another painting while in prison!
Tom Keating (1917-1984): The British artist turned to forgery after the
art world dismissed his original works. He created more than 2,000 forgeries of
works by more than 100 artists. After being caught and serving time, Keating
starred in a popular British TV series, in which he taught aspiring painters how
to copy famous works. In 1984, when he died, Christie's auctioned off 204 of his
John Myatt (1945-): The British artist's forgeries sold at high-end auction houses
such as Philips, Sothebys, and
Christie's. Myatt collaborated with his dealer, John Drewe, forging work
by Matisse, Braque, Chagall, Picasso, Giacometti, Le
Corbusier, Monet, and Renoir. The forgeries were inserted into real archives, so
that scholars would later
"discover" them. After serving his
prison sentence, Myatt helped track down other forgers. He now sells "genuine
fakes" bearing his own signature, and George Clooney is reportedly interested in
turning Myatt's life story into a film.
Myatt has continued to paint and has
sold paintings for as much as $45,000. He also starred on a TV series called
Mastering the Art, in which he shared some of his secrets.
(1736-1796) was a Scottish writer, poet, literary
collector and politician, known for his "translations" of the Ossian cycle of
Macpherson was born at Ruthven in the parish of Kingussie, Badenoch,
Inverness-shire. In 1753, he studied at King's College, Aberdeen. Two
years later he attended Marischal College. He then went to Edinburgh for just over a year, but it
is unknown whether he studied at the university. He is said to have written over
4,000 lines of verse as a student; some of which was later published, notably in
The Highlander (1758), which he is said to have tried to suppress afterwards.
After leaving college, he returned to Ruthven to teach.
In 1761 he announced the discovery of an epic on the subject of Fingal (related
to the Irish mythological character Fionn mac Cumhaill/Finn McCool) written by
Ossian (Fionn's son Oisín). In December 1761 he published Fingal, an
Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, followed by
Temora in 1763, then a collected edition, The Works of Ossian,
The authenticity of these so-called translations from the works of a 3rd-century
bard was immediately challenged by Irish historians, especially Charles O'Conor,
who noted technical errors in chronology and in the forming of Gaelic names, and
commented on the implausibility of many of MacPherson's claims, none of which
MacPherson was able to refute. More forceful denunciations were later made by
Dr. Samuel Johnson, who asserted that MacPherson had found fragments of poems and stories, and
then woven them into a romance of his own composition. Further challenges and
defences were made well into the nineteenth century, but the issue was moot by
then. Macpherson never produced the originals that he claimed existed.
William Sykes (18th century): Forgery isn't just about making a convincing copy.
During the 18th century, William Sykes convinced the Duke of Devonshire that an
anonymous painting of an unidentified saint was actually a portrait by Jan van
Eyck, whose works claimed the highest prices at auction of any artist at the
Icilio Federico Joni (1866-1946): Joni spent many years as a successful art
forger, fooling the art historian Bernard Berenson. When Berenson realized he
had purchased fakes, he traveled to Italy to meet Joni, expressing his
admiration. It is said that Berenson sold several of Joni's works as originals
afterward, while keeping a few of the pieces in his collection as reminders. In
1936, Joni published a memoir titled "Affairs of a Painter," in spite of antique
dealers' attempts to bribe him into not to publishing.
Eric Hebborn (1934-1996): A graduate of London's Royal Academy of Art, Hebborn
began making forgeries after a famous London art dealer bought a real drawing
from him, then sold it for many times more. Hebborn claimed to have produced
approximately 1,000 forgeries of drawings by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens,
Raphael, Anthony van Dyck, Nicolas Poussin, and 18th-century painter Giovanni
Battista Tiepolo, among many others. These were sold by noted auction houses to
numerous prestigious collections. He wrote two memoirs of his career, including
one that explained his tricks for aspiring forgers. In 1996, he was murdered in
Shaun Greenhalgh (1961-): Convicted of forgery in November 2008, Greenhalgh and
his octogenarian parents Olive and George were involved in the most wide-reaching forgery
campaign of all time, to the tune of $11 million. Greenhalgh created works of astounding diversity, from
20th-century British sculpture to an Egyptian statue purportedly from 1350 B.C.,
fooling Christie's, Sotheby's and The British Museum. The Greenhalghs were
caught when a British Museum expert noted that Assyrian sculptural relief
tablets, supposedly created in Mesopotamia in 700 B.C., contained misspellings
Elmyr de Hory (1905-1976):
Hungarian painter Elmyr de Hory's elusive past as a con artist was a mystery
until his suicide during an art fraud investigation in 1976, when new
discoveries were made about his repertoire of forged works from renowned
artists such as Modigliani, Degas, Picasso and Matisse.
De Hory completed around 1,000 forgeries throughout his career as a forger, some
of which are still in circulation today.
His pieces have become so appreciated over time that today his fake Modigliani
and Monet pieces have sold for $20,000 at San
Francisco's Terrain Gallery. Also, forged de Horys have started to appear on the
Mark Landis (1955-) Mark Landis is believed to have presented more than 100
forged works of art to museums across 20 U.S. states. To make these donations
seem authentic, Landis used aliases and even dressed as a Jesuit priest. He says
he was first motivated by a desire to please his mother and honor his father,
then became addicted to the VIP treatment he received from museum staff. He
never received money or tax benefits. The work above is a copy Landis made of
one of Picasso's paintings, based on the image in the catalog to the left, and
donated to a museum in Florida.
Tatiana Khan, an L.A. art dealer and gallery owner, was
sued after reportedly telling an artist that Picasso's 1902 pastel “La
Femme Au Chapeau Bleu” ("The Woman in the Blue Hat") had been stolen, then paying her $1,000 to recreate the
work. Khan allegedly told Maria Apelo Cruz that the real Picasso had been stolen
from one of Khan's clients, and that the dealer needed a copy to play a trick
that would help catch the thief. Soon thereafter, Khan allegedly sold the
imitation Picasso for $2 million to an art prospector.
Famous Historical Beauties,
Famous Pool Sharks,
Famous Forgers and Frauds,
The Dumbest Things Ever Said,
Famous Last Words,