January 25, 2015 -- This documentary about one of the most prolific forgers in history is a fascinating character study of two men, the forger, a man compelled to copy works of art and pass them off as originals, and the man compelled to stop him from from doing that.
These two compulsive men meet at a most unlikely event, a public exhibition at a renowned gallery, showing forged works of art. The forger, Mark A. Landis, has never been prosecuted for his forgeries because he has never made any money from them. He just gives the paintings and drawings to museums and other institutions as gifts, but passes them off as originals.
Over a period of nearly 30 years, Landis made copies of hundreds of famous paintings and drawings in a number of styles using different methods, from drawing and painting freehand to painting over the top of a photocopy. He then donated forgeries to 60 different museums in 20 different states. In the film, Landis is shown copying paintings and drawings by hand. He is very fast and has a great eye for detail. He is able to copy lines and colors by looking at a photo of the original and rapidly looking back at the copy he is making, where he recreates the same detail with remarkable precision.
As people confront Landis about these forgeries, a question he gets asked most often is, with a man of his remarkable artistic skill, why didn't he just do original work under his own name instead of making copies of the work of others?
To that, Landis has two answers. First, he did sell some of his own original work, but he clearly did not find that as satisfying as his work as a “philanthropist.” As for the forgeries, “That's a long story.” The long story is what the film attempts to tell, recounting a long history of mental illness following the death of his father. He has been treated for schizophrenia and some think he has a bipolar disorder. He is a small, thin, meek-looking man who comes across as an eccentric. He certainly doesn't look like a con man.
A good part of the film shows Landis puttering around his home, working on his paintings. The TV set is constantly on, showing old TV shows from years ago, but he doesn't really watch it. Landis is shown getting into one of the costumes he uses in his con, a priest costume. Two of the aliases he uses, Father Arthur Scott and Father James Brantley are priests, which probably makes him seem more credible. When he makes his donations to museums, he often drops hints that large donations may be forthcoming from his family. As one museum employee said in the film, those are two things that museums find hard to resist, free artwork and money.
In the film the suggestion is made by Landis that he made his donations to honor his mother. It seems those donations of forgeries also make him feel important. He considers himself a philanthropist. He gets something out of these donations that he doesn't get by selling his own artwork.
The man who first exposed him as a forger was Matthew Leininger, who started investigating Landis in 2007 when he was the registrar of art at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Landis attempted to donate works of art to the museum and Leininger did some research on them and found that the same artwork had been donated to other museums. He continued his investigation of Landis and warned other museums about him. According to the film, Leininger's employers at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art didn't want any publicity about Landis, but Leininger would not let it go. He was fired.
Out of job, Leininger continued his campaign to stop Landis. He eventually linked up with another art museum registrar, Joyce Penn, resulting in the first journalistic article about the Landis forgeries in 2010. This was followed up by another article by the Financial Times and another in the New York Times. Landis' cover was blown, but that did not stop him from trying his con again.
Leininger attended the 2012 “Faux Real” exhibition at the University of Cincinnati organized by Leininger and Aaron Cowan (who also appears in this film). About 60 pieces of forged art created by Landis (along with his priest costume) were on display at the event. Before Landis arrived at the opening reception, Leininger says, in the film, “When I see him, I just don't know what to say ... I don't know if I want to say good to see you again.” He ends up saying exactly that when he meets Landis, who is a personable and disarming man. Landis seems to enjoy the attention.
In the film, Landis seems to be at least mildly upset that his deceptions have been unmasked, but that doesn't stop him from trying again, and again, to pull the same old scams. Both he and Leininger are fascinating characters, the kind of characters who make for a good documentary film. This film rates a B.
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