For the Love of the Game
The FT tracks down Mark Augustus Landis: The bogus benefactor-cum-Jesuit priest who has been conning art galleries for 30 years.
One morning last September, a visitor arrived at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette, Louisiana. He had been expected at 9 a.m., but he called from outside at 7:45 a.m., 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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."
John Gapper is the FT's chief business commentator.
Photograph of Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum by Aaron Charles is in the public domain.