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 watercolor 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 American history.
bout 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.
Leininger, now the director of museum services at the Cincinnati Art Museum, has called it the most bizarre thing he’s ever come across. Ever since being conned by Landis that day in 2007, he’s been obsessed with tracking the forger down. He’s compiled a four-inch-thick dossier that includes photos of framed fakes hanging in museums, letters to curators, and pictures of Landis in disguise. He also has a laminated map on the wall to track Landis’ movements. To date he’s documented Landis sightings in 19 states.
While art crime accounts for close to $6 billion in losses annually, making it the fourth-largest international crime (behind only drug trafficking, gun running, and money laundering), Landis is different from the other forgers. Unlike the world’s greatest art thieves, he has no profit motive. His only condition is that museums display his pieces in memory of his father, his mother, and, in some cases, a nonexistent relative.
“Everyone has a name on a tombstone. What good is that?” Landis asks me in a lilting Southern accent. “But to have a piece of art hanging in a museum--that’s something that’ll last hundreds of years, maybe longer.”
Landis’ apartment is filled with what looks like the remnants of a lost fortune: paintings in gilded frames, silk Dior scarves, yellowed photos of trips to Monte Carlo and Venice. Like much of the South, the place seems haunted by faded glory.
“His story is in many ways a Southern gothic tale,” says Ellen Ruffin, a curator at the University of Southern Mississippi, one of Landis’ first cons. “Lost glory, delusions of grandeur--all of that fits the South.”
Landis came from a genteel Southern family. His father, the scion of a now-defunct auto empire, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1948 and then took his wife and son to Europe on assignment from NATO. Landis’ parents were cold and distant, and made the most of the money his paternal grandfather had left them by gambling in Monte Carlo and vacationing in France, often leaving Landis behind with nannies.
While his mother shopped, Landis and his father visited museums. At night, while his parents were out, Landis stayed up tracing, and later mimicking, the works of the masters in the art catalogs he’d brought home.
After being passed over for promotion to admiral, his father retired, then spiraled into depression and alcoholism, and moved the family to Laurel, where Landis’ mother had family. Two years later, when his father died of cancer, Landis suffered a nervous breakdown. His mother placed him in a mental hospital, where at the age of 17 he retreated further into painting.
Upon his release, and at the urging of the hospital staff, Landis’ mother enrolled him at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. Although Landis was a poor student, his teachers saw promise. His mother transferred him to an art school in San Francisco, where he dropped out and became friends with gallery owners. He spent 10 years selling art, looking at collections, and “fixing up pictures that were in a bad way” by repairing frames and touching up stains.
Eventually he sank his savings into a gallery, which failed. Broke and disgraced at 31, he felt like he had no choice but to go home to Mississippi and live with his mother. But before he left, he decided he would do something to impress her: donate a piece of art in his father’s name.
“It was just an impulse,” Landis says of his first forgery, in 1985. He won’t say where he donated the fake -- a knockoff of 20th-century American Impressionist Maynard Dixon -- because he doesn’t think it’s been found out yet. “I had a catalog, and it was easy to copy. It would never occur to me that I would spend the rest of my life doing that.”
But Landis admits that giving away the painting created an electric feeling. As he shares the experience, his eyes light up and his hands tremble. He was hooked on what he now refers to as “philanthropy.”
His second attempt at donating a forgery -- at a New Orleans museum in 1987 -- failed when the staff immediately recognized it as a fake. But with practice Landis got better. He quickly learned that the quality of the work wasn’t nearly as important as the story he told about where it had come from.
Landis stuck to small, lesser-known museums throughout the South, where it was easier to pull off his con. He typically sent a letter first, explaining that he had a heart condition and wanted to donate his collection before he died. Before long Landis became so good at reproducing certain works that he set up what he calls “an assembly line” in his bedroom, focusing on small, easy-to-replicate paintings by 19th-century American Impressionists that didn’t require precise lines or details. He’d then go to Home Depot or Hobby Lobby for wood to paint on, which he’d cut to exact dimensions in his bedroom with a handsaw.
Sometimes he painted directly on the panel if the artist in question had, too, but more often he used a digital printer to get a replica, glued it onto the board, and then painted over it, filling in lines with Magic Markers. Coffee and tea, he learned, worked wonders to distress the back of the plank, giving it an aged look. For Landis there was little joy in creating the pieces; the rush began when he started planning his trips. He’d choose a city and hit every museum in town. Landis suddenly had the attention and respect he’d craved: “Everybody treated me like royalty, and that was not something I was accustomed to.”
By the mid-2000s, he was conning a half-dozen museums a year. It was only a matter of time before it would come crashing down.
A few weeks after Landis’ 2007 visit to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, as Matthew Leininger began to prepare the five pieces Landis had donated for installation, he noticed something strange. Under the black light used to spot fakes, one of the paintings didn’t look uniform. Some spots glowed white, a telltale sign the work had been doctored. When Leininger slid it under a microscope, he saw pixelated dots that could have come only from a digital printer. “At first I thought it was just one painting. Maybe he’d bought something he thought was real.” To be sure, Leininger took another of Landis’ paintings and peeled back the lower left corner. He expected to find a brittle backing, considering it was more than 100 years old, but instead he found a smooth white surface. Leininger held the painting to his nose. It smelled like coffee.
Convinced he’d discovered a fake, he logged on to a Listserv used by museum officials and asked, “Does anybody own works by a man named Mark Augustus Landis?” Within 10 minutes Leininger had at least 15 responses; within an hour he had heard from 20 museum officials across the country. “I thought, Holy shit, what have I uncovered?”
Leininger contacted the FBI. Robert Wittman, the now-retired legendary art sleuth, looked into the case, but quickly determined that Landis had committed no crime because he had received no compensation. He had even refused to take the forms required for an IRS deduction. “I realized this was just a guy flying around the country donating fakes,” Wittman says. “I had never seen anything like it, but there was no victim.”
Leininger decided he would take it upon himself to stop Landis. He sent pictures of the forger to other museum directors and forwarded copies of his dossier. He also began conducting database searches under Landis’ name, eventually tracking down his last known physical address.
Not long after, the curator at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel told Landis she would no longer accept his donations. Realizing someone was onto him, he changed his methods. He stopped writing from Laurel, using a Michigan address instead, and got a cell phone with a Philadelphia number. He began traveling by Greyhound instead of flying, to avoid having to show ID, and started dressing as a Jesuit priest, an idea he says he got from a British series called Father Brown, about a bumbling priest who solves crimes.
Then things began to unravel. In the summer of 2010, Landis’ mother died. Racked with grief, he went on a binge, donating fakes all over in her memory. “The mistake I made is I gave away too many of the same thing,” he says. Over and over he painted Children by the Seashore by the American Impressionist Charles Courtney Curran. “Once I did a watercolor; those are easy to run off on the computer,” he says. “That’s how I was able to be so prolific. And it seemed like it was good business sense because traveling is expensive.”
t was a warm and cloudless afternoon in Louisiana, not far from the muggy Gulf Coast, when Landis pulled up in the red Cadillac. With the authorities on his trail, he was taking greater precautions, dressing as a priest. He parked across two spaces, checked his collar in the rearview mirror, and grabbed the leather attaché case baking on the seat beside him. He then crossed beneath the large oak tree in front of the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum and entered through the plate-glass doors.
Inside he introduced himself as Father Arthur Scott, a Jesuit priest from Michigan, and explained that his mother, a wealthy Philadelphia art collector, had recently passed away. It had fallen to him to take care of her collection, which he planned to donate.
Mark Tullos, the museum director, led him into a room, where Landis carefully removed a pastel drawing from the satchel. Wrapped in cellophane and painted on a wood plank was a work by Curran, dated 1894. On the back Tullos noticed a verso from a defunct Manhattan gallery; he estimated the piece was worth nearly $100,000.
“I’ve taken a vow of poverty,” Landis explained. He promised he would return with the rest of the collection.
As they walked outside into the bright sunlight, Landis turned abruptly and made the sign of the cross. “Pax vobiscum,” he said, blessing the museum in Latin.
Tullos watched closely as Landis drove off, unsure what to make of the encounter. It was soon after that the museum’s staff realized they’d received a fake and sent out a press release. The story was picked up by The Art Newspaper and read by registrars and curators throughout the country. Finally, Landis had been exposed.
At first Leininger felt relief, but he isn’t convinced Landis has stopped. “I don’t know if he can,” he says. “As long as he’s out there, I think it will be an addiction for him.”
Seated on a folding chair in his bedroom, Landis takes a drag, leans back, and lets out a circular puff of smoke. It’s nearly evening, and he’s almost finished the painting he started for me earlier in the day. To the untrained eye, there’s no way to tell it’s a fake.
“I was good as a priest,” he says wistfully. “Couldn’t keep money on me. People would come up to me at the bus station or airport. I was a pretty good marriage counselor, too.”
Now that Landis has been discovered, he’s not sure what to do. At times he rails against the art world, giving credence to the theory that he passed off fakes as a way to get back at the community that rejected him.
“People let a minority of intellectuals, like people in universities, determine what’s good,” he says. “Nobody rises on talent.”
But he seems convincing when he says he never cared much for being an artist.
Getting up to go, I notice the jacket he wore as a priest draped over a couch in the front room. I ask him if he misses wearing it.
“Oh, I wore it the other day, to a little convent in New Orleans run by some nice Vietnamese nuns.”
He made a donation, he says.
“Yeah. They didn’t know Latin, so I was able to give some blessings, too,” he says.
“Museums, though, I don’t know how…” he says softly. He pauses, seemingly lost in thought. “I’m thinking, I’m thinking…I’m sure inspiration will strike.”
A few weeks later he sends me a cryptic e-mail under the subject “trips.” “I have been on several long driving trips since we last met,” he writes. He explains that he’s been meeting new people and making new friends. Attached are two pictures of Landis holding pieces he has just donated. In one he is dressed as a priest, his arm around a curator, an impish grin on his face.
He promises to send more pictures when he gets a chance.