One morning last September, a visitor arrived at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette, Louisiana. He had been expected at 9am but he called from outside at 7.45am, and when Lee Gray, the museum’s curator, went down to greet him, she found his red Cadillac parked across two spaces in the handicapped spot. His name was Father Arthur Scott, he was dressed in the outfit of a Jesuit priest with a Society of Jesus lapel pin, and he bore a gift.
A few weeks before, Father Scott had sent a letter postmarked Michigan to the museum, an elegant institution attached to the University of Louisiana. His mother, an art collector from Philadelphia, had died, and his sister Emily was still in Paris sorting out the estate, he wrote. His mother had left a number of paintings, including a pastel drawing by Charles Courtney Curran, which he wanted to donate. He planned to return with others and the family was also likely to make a financial donation.
When Gray saw the priest, she was taken aback by his appearance – he was short and thin with sparse hair and jug ears, and looked frail and sickly. She and Mark Tullos, the museum’s director, took him to Tullos’s office, where they had trouble grasping his train of thought. “He had attention deficit disorder worse than anyone I’d ever met,” says Gray. “He was constantly distracted in the middle of sentences by shiny objects or jewellery.”
This was not enough to arouse their suspicions. Like many US art museums, the Hilliard relies on rich, often elderly, donors to bolster its collection and is accustomed to eccentrics. “In my experience with Jesuit priests and upper-crust wealthy donors, it’s not unusual to run into someone quirky,” Tullos says.
After Father Scott had handed them the Curran, painted on a small wooden board, they toured the museum’s modernist light-filled building next to an antebellum mansion that was its original home. Father Scott knew his art – he had much to say about the collection and he chatted fluently about artists and schools of painting. He was most intrigued by a painting of a girl with ringlets by Thomas Sully, the 19th-century English-born American portraitist.
As the priest prepared to leave, there was a moment of consternation when he did not seem to know where he was going next. In answer to questions, “he scrunched up his face like a child who’s frustrated and can’t get the words out”, says Gray. But he recovered his poise and, before driving off in his red Cadillac, blessed the museum officials with a sign of the cross. “Pax vobiscum,” he said.
Five minutes later, Tullos received unsettling news from Joyce Penn, the Hilliard museum registrar. A registrar is in charge of cataloguing and taking care of a museum’s works and Penn is known for being meticulous. When she had taken the Curran to the art workshop to look at it, she had discovered something strange.
It is mid-December and I am in the same room with Tullos, looking at the cause of all the fuss. It is a painting of three women sitting in a meadow and, to an untrained eye, it looks genuine. Then he turns off the lights and shines a “black light” on it – an ultraviolet lamp used to analyse paintings. Under the black light, parts of the painting glow white and there are bright marks.
“See those orange spots? They might not even be oil paint. It might have been done with a paint pen,” says Tullos, “Look at the signature, you can see it is embossed as if it’s been done with pen rather than a brush, and there are scratches on the grass. He probably downloaded a digital image of the painting, glued it to this board, sanded it down and distressed it, and painted over the top.”
It quickly transpired that the Curran was not the only fake. After examining the painting, Penn looked on an online message board for museum registrars and found that “Father Arthur Scott” did not exist, and neither did his rich mother nor his sister Emily in Paris. They had just played host to Mark Augustus Landis, the man responsible for the longest, strangest forgery spree the American art world has known.
For nearly three decades, Landis has visited museums across the US in various guises and tried to donate paintings he has forged. As well as Father Scott, he has posed as “Steven Gardiner” among other aliases. He never asks for money, although museums have often hosted meals for him and made small gifts. His only stipulation is that he is donating in his parents’ names – often his actual father, Lieutenant Commander Arthur Landis Jr, a former US Navy officer.
Landis has been prolific and amazingly persistent. A few weeks before he came to Lafayette, “Father Scott” arrived at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, with a forgery of Head of a Sioux by Alfred Jacob Miller that he said he was giving in memory of his mother, “Helen Mitchell Scott”. Landis has so far offered copies of that work to five other museums. Yet in all this time, although curators speculate about his motives, no one has found out why he is doing it.
Matthew Leininger, chief registrar of the Cincinnati Museum of Art, has spent more than two years tracking Landis’s progress. He estimates that Landis has tried to fool at least 40 museums – and probably many more – in 19 states in cities from Boston and Chicago to Savannah and Oklahoma City. Some forgeries have been spotted, yet he has persuaded museums not only to add works to collections, but even to hang them in galleries.
Leininger has warned other museums, circulating photographs of Landis taken when he visited the Louisiana State University Museum of Art, and alerted the US tax authorities and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “If you count up the time and resources people have spent on him, it runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says. “I just want him to stop, but if we can get him on something criminal, that would be even better.”
The difficulty is that, however annoying and disruptive Landis’s activities may be for museums, he does not seem to have broken the law. “The criminal statute [of fraud] says there must be a loss and that’s the problem. There hasn’t been a loss to any victim,” says Robert Wittman, an investigator who used to run the FBI’s Art Crime Team.
This marks out Landis from well-known art forgers such as Han van Meegeren, the prewar Dutch painter who specialised in Vermeers and John Myatt, the British artist who was jailed for forging Picassos and Renoirs to be sold by a partner. Wolfgang Beltracchi, a German artist, was recently charged with fraud for allegedly selling forgeries through auction houses including Christie’s with the help of his wife and her sister.
Landis often forges a watercolour by Louis Valtat, a portrait by Marie Laurencin and a drawing by Milton Avery, but he has a wide range. He persuaded the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection of the University of Southern Mississippi to take forged Disney drawings of Goofy and Donald Duck, and went to the Bostonian Society in Massachusetts with a forgery of a letter by John Hancock, a signatory to the 1776 Declaration of Independence.
Even some of his targets admire Landis’s abilities. “I think the fact that someone can produce all of these different styles is pretty phenomenal,” says Gray. Others say that his genius is not as a painter but as a con man. “If you examine them with a critical eye, it’s over,” says Jill Chancey, curator of the Lauren Rogers Museum in Laurel, Mississippi, “The forgeries aren’t masterful but the con is persuasive. The con is good.”
Imposters travelling from town to town telling stories, some dressed as preachers, are a staple of Southern Gothic writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Davis Grubb, author of Night of the Hunter. In O’Connor’s story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”, a traveller called Tom Shiftlet warns a woman who shelters him of his uncertain identity:
“‘Lady,’ he said, ‘Nowadays, people’ll do anything anyways. I can tell you my name is Tom T. Shiftlet and I come from Tarwater, Tennessee, but you never have seen me before: how you know I ain’t lying? How you know my name ain’t Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia?’”
Landis is not as sinister as Shiftlet or Harry Powell, the killer-turned-priest of The Night of the Hunter. His grandfather, also called Arthur Landis, was an executive of the now-defunct Auburn Automobile Company and his father was attached to Nato and posted to Europe. The family lived in London, Paris and Brussels, and Mark, an only child, attended St Mary’s Town and Country School, a progressive school in Swiss Cottage, for two years.
Jonita Landis, Mark’s mother, had grown up in Laurel and the family moved to Jackson, Mississippi, when Arthur retired. Jo then moved to Laurel after Arthur died of cancer in 1972 and got remarried, to a man called James Brantley. She was by all accounts an intelligent and kind woman – “a fine Christian lady”, says one acquaintance – who was a pillar of the community until her death last April aged 79.
Her son, however, was troubled from an early age. He was a quiet and artistic child and at 17, after his father’s death, he suffered a breakdown and was diagnosed as schizophrenic at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. He stayed there for 18 months, and then went to Chicago to study photography. After Chicago, Landis went on to San Francisco to be an art dealer. The Victorian paintings he liked were coming back into fashion, and his clients included Chet Helms, the music promoter.
He did not settle long, living at 16 addresses in San Francisco, Hattiesburg, Laurel and Jackson between 1985 and 2000, according to public records. “Our folks move around a lot, they just do,” says Patsy Hollister, a co-founder of Narsad Artworks, a California group promoting art by the mentally ill, through which Landis sold work. He told Narsad that he was schizophrenic, but, says Hollister, “I didn’t think he was because he was so organised. I thought he was more likely bipolar because he painted up a storm. Oh brother, it was incredible.”
Landis often tells curators that he is due to have heart surgery, and he claimed to have a heart condition when he won a Mississippi arts competition for the disabled in 2004. “I thought that Mark was an injured soul,” says Ellen Ruffin, curator of the de Grummond Collection. “I believed he had Asperger’s because he’d get stuck on a single subject, but he struck me as harmless.”
Kay Redfield Jamison, the psychologist, wrote in her book Touched With Fire about links between bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression) and creativity, citing poets such as Byron and artists including Van Gogh. One Hungarian study has suggested a genetic link between schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and artistic ability.
Even if it is true, however, it does not explain Landis’s deception. Some think he wants to humiliate the art world. “Forgers tend to be embittered souls,” says Edward Dolnick, author of a book about Van Meegeren. “Typically, they start out as artists and nobody likes their stuff but they get appreciated when they put someone else’s name on it. That feels like proof that the art world is phony.”
Laurel is a lumber town built by the Eastman, Gardiner and Rogers families when they moved from Iowa in the 1890s to harvest the pine woods of Mississippi. Lauren Rogers, an only child, was being groomed to run the family company when he died after an operation in 1921 at the age of 23.
Rogers’ portrait hangs in the museum, and beneath are cuttings and photos from the time – his white-tie engagement party at the Biltmore in New York, and his obituaries nine months after his marriage. The house he was building by his parents’ mansion in Laurel’s leafy historic area was half-finished and was replaced by a museum in his name.
The US has 17,500 museums, with perhaps 5,000 devoted to art. “There were no royal collections, so our museums were created out of pride by residents. Many are still little places in little towns,” says Janet Landay, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors. Most of these collections are donated – wealthy patrons can offset the entire value of gifts against taxes, and many enjoy seeing their family names inscribed next to paintings.
Eight years ago, Landis approached the Lauren Rogers museum, saying that he wanted to donate some works. “It wasn’t suspicious because we knew his mother,” said George Bassi, the museum’s director. “We have a lot of activities here so if people are retired or widowed, they are often involved.” Landis’s first offering was a pastel drawing that he said had been painted by Everett Shinn, one of “the Eight” painters of the Ashcan school.
When he arrived, “he seemed frail and a little bit delicate”, says Chancey, the museum curator. “My feeling was he was ill and disposing of his estate. He said he had seven or eight American Impressionists and we were jazzed. I’d been a curator for all of eight months.” Landis knew the collection and enthused about a Sully portrait called Ideal Head. The museum accepted his drawing, and only found out two years later that it had been duped.
In her office, Chancey unwraps the forgery. Unlike some forgeries that Landis painted on top of digital photographs, he drew this one from scratch. It is a portrait of a woman sitting on a bank and he has faithfully captured Shinn’s style. Although fake, it is beautiful.
The New York Times reported recently that Landis “seems to have disappeared altogether”, but it did not take long to locate him. After I had visited the Lauren Rogers museum, I drove the few blocks over to the apartment where his mother had lived, in a gated community for the elderly called Sugar Hill Resort.
“He’s up there,” said Larry Gavin, the estate manager. “You can go up and knock but he probably won’t answer. He often don’t.” The apartment was up a flight of stairs, overlooking a courtyard with a swimming pool for the sweltering summers. I heard classical music playing inside, but Landis did not come to the door, even after I knocked several times and called his name.
The Art Newspaper had written about Landis’s deception after his visit to Lafayette but news had not reached the Sugar Hill Resort. “He’s got an IQ of 150, but he ain’t got a lot of common sense,” Gavin said. “It’s because of his intelligence that he’s the way he is. He’s a brilliant artist. His mother told me he’d got paintings in the White House.”
His red Cadillac was outside, parked across two spaces. At dusk, a light came on in his apartment but then went off again shortly afterwards. I called his phone but it switched to an answering machine that was full. “I don’t know anything about him and you never will because he’s strange,” said Edith Walters, his next-door neighbour.
The following week, my mobile phone rang in New York. It was Landis. He had a high Southern voice, not unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman’s film portrayal of Truman Capote, and he spoke rapidly in unbroken cadences of thought. He was friendly, but puzzled about why I had come to see him.
“Hey, was that you the other day? Oh Gee, I’m sorry. I don’t open the door to people I don’t know. I was wondering, ‘Who is that guy? He looks like trouble.’ Not that you do but you never know. It’s a damn shame because I could’ve shown you grandfather’s portrait and I’ve got a Dresden vase from when they were at Jutland. Listen, if you’re ever in the New Orleans area, come by.”
The figure that opened his door a few days later was just as described by the directors and curators – thin and pale, with white stubble and a shuffling gait. His jug ears and wry smile lent him a mischievous, puckish look although his face turned mask-like in repose. He led me inside and talked freely for two hours about his extraordinary escapade.
His apartment was stuffed with art, jewellery and curios, and papers and books were strewn over the floor. Many of the photos were of his parents, and the paintings included what he said was the original Valtat watercolour that he has forged, as well as other works that have turned up in museums. The pride of place went to his large portrait of his grandfather, from whom he said he’d learnt about “the assembly line”.
Landis was clearly disturbed but he was also intelligent and funny, and his story – although bizarre – was plaintively human. By his own account, he had spent nigh on three decades forging and donating paintings as a tribute to his parents. It had become his life’s work and he did not want to stop.
“After you called, I was sort of upset, you know what I mean? It shook me up,” he said. “I guess I’ve pretty much been shopped, huh? Because I’d had some trips planned and the letters I’ve got [from museums] seem nice. They are looking forward to seeing me, they say. They wouldn’t lure me into a trap, would they?”
Landis was taken with the fact that I was English, which reminded him of his old school in London, and he showed me a photograph of himself aged 12 in uniform. “I’m an Anglophile. English people are the politest people in the world and English girls are the prettiest. I can slip into an English accent just like that.”
He had taught himself to draw in his teens, when he was at high school in Washington DC. “I took it up in high school, wasn’t anything else to do. I used to copy pictures from books and you know how it is, one thing led to another,” he said with a laugh. “Oh, and I watched that movie, A Dog of Flanders. Did you ever see that? Good movie. It’s about a little boy who wants to be an artist.”
His big idea had come to him in his late twenties. “I was awful upset when dad passed away. When mother went – I don’t know if I’ll ever get over that. I’d like to have had a museum named after dad or mother but I’m not a billionaire. Lots of people have pictures in museums in loved ones’ memories, don’t they? I mean everybody’s got a tombstone, that doesn’t mean anything, but a picture in a museum, that really means something,” he said wistfully.
“Dad was a fine man and he wasn’t treated right. He was in the same class [at the Naval Academy] as President Carter but the right people never get on and nobody cares about dad. He got passed over, he should have been an admiral. Mother was such a great lady, and all these people never did anything except get born to the right families. Lauren Rogers never did anything, but his parents perpetuated his memory, didn’t they?”
He had dressed as a Jesuit priest because he had been taught by one in London, and was amused by the reaction. “I’ve helped out a lot of people. They come up to me at airports and tell me of their problems. There’s not much to being a priest. Some comforting words, that sort of thing. And a blessing.” He donated in the name Helen Mitchell because “it wasn’t mother’s name but it was grandmother’s, and mother would know in heaven, right?”
On our way out to lunch, we stopped off at Landis’s stockbroker, whom he wanted me to meet since I worked for the Financial Times, but the man was out. As we drove, Landis mused about having been discovered. “I like people to think of me as an art dealer and philanthropist, but I guess I get to be a dishonourable schoolboy,” he said wryly.
In recompense for not having opened his door the first time, he had painted me a picture of Joan of Arc (signed in his own name) and, as I left, he had a request. “See if you can smooth things over for me. Tell them I’m not a bad guy. I’m awful sorry if I caused them any trouble.”
We shook hands. “Let me give you a blessing,” he said, making a sign of the cross. “Pax vobiscum.”
John Gapper is the FT’s chief business commentator