SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Mark Landis is a gifted and notorious art forger. For nearly 30 years he duped dozens of museums into accepting gifts of fake paintings. His stunts made headlines. Now because Mark Landis never asked for money, he never went to jail. Now his paintings and drawings are in a touring exhibition called "Intent To Deceive" and he's the subject of a new documentary called "Art And Craft," as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Mark Landis is a paradox. He's a shut-in who craves interaction. His house in Laurel, Mississippi is extremely cluttered but his scams are well organized. In the documentary "Art And Craft" we also learn that Landis is a huge fan of old movies and TV shows, like "Outer Limits," from the 1960s.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OUTER LIMITS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: There is nothing wrong with your television set. We are controlling your transmission.
MARK LANDIS: Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. (Unintelligible). And stuff like that, you know what I mean.
BLAIR: Mark Landis is a wisp of a man. He's thin, pale and bald. He looks a little like Truman Capote. He admits he's always had a mischievous streak. When he approaches museums, sometimes he'll dress up like a priest or use an alias.
LANDIS: Yes, my name's Mark Landis. My recently deceased sister left your archives.
BLAIR: There was no deceased sister.
LANDIS: It depicts the crucifixion. It's circa 1540 and I'd like to tell you a little bit about Emily and her husband.
BLAIR: The small university museum says they'd be happy to meet with him and look at the Renaissance painting owned by his late sister.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Is that an early form of color printing of some sort, or it's all hand done color?
LANDIS: It's hand done, but it's not as good as the earlier ones.
BLAIR: With his odd demeanor and near encyclopedic knowledge of art history, Landis could easily come across as an eccentric art collector, says Sam Cullman, co-director of "Art And Craft."
SAM CULLMAN: Mark is one of those people that are so unusual that you kind of don't know what to make of when you meet him.
BLAIR: And he's got skills - often using a magnifying glass, Mark Landis studies a print of an original work and with meticulous attention to detail, copies exactly what he sees. Religious icons, Impressionist or modern works, his re-creations in the style of old masters are astonishing. So are his tools.
CULLMAN: Magic markers and pens and you know, Walmart frames and things, you know, the raw materials that proper forgers might not use.
BLAIR: In the documentary, Landis holds up his very professional-looking copy of a 16th century drawing of a woman playing a lute. He says he say the original in a Sotheby's catalogue.
LANDIS: And the Sotheby's label would've said, black chalk, brown - you know how they'll say black chalk, brown wash, red chalk? I just used colored pencils, you know, 'cause they can't tell.
BLAIR: More than 45 museums could not tell the difference between Mark Landis's copies and originals; from academic nudes, to sketches of Charles Schulz characters from "Peanuts." As one museum director explains in the documentary, when Landis came to visit, he said all the right things, there were more paintings.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ART AND CRAFT")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And possible endowments from the family's estate. He knew right where to hit us. Our soft spot - art and money.
BLAIR: And since Landis was giving his copies to museums, he wasn't doing anything illegal. "Art And Craft" includes an interview with Robert Wittman, who founded the FBI's Art Crime Team.
ROBERT WITTMAN: It wasn't like Landis went in and said here, I want to give you this fabulous painting by Picasso and you need to pay me, you know, $100,000 for the painting and then receive the money, which - that would be a crime, OK? That's a fraud. But the fact is, he gave it to the museum for free. It's up to the museum to determine what they want to think of it. In fact, Landis considers himself a philanthropist. But after nearly 30 years of giving fakes to museums, he finally got caught.
MATT LEININGER: He messed with the wrong registrar, is what he did.
BLAIR: Let's call Matt Leininger the story's Sherlock Holmes. He was the registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum in 2007, when Landis offered to donate works of art there. Leininger did his due diligence and found out that other museums had some of the same works.
LEININGER: I mean, these were no small potatoes. This Alfred Jacob Miller piece, this is in six or seven museums.
BLAIR: Leininger admits that he became obsessed with stopping Mark Landis. And for the documentary filmmakers, that gave the story some great tension.
CULLMAN: The setup, as we were introduced to the story, was these people were on opposing sides. You know, Mark was the villain, Matt was the, you know, the guy trying to bring justice to the world. And I think you know, over time we learned that while they may have opposing roles, they shared an obsession.
BLAIR: An obsession for art. In the documentary when the two finally meet, Mark Landis asks Matt Leininger, did I get the colors right?
When he was 17, Mark Landis was diagnosed with schizophrenia. So among famous art forgers, he is in a class by himself, says Colette Loll, an art fraud investigator. She's organized a touring exhibition of works by five notorious forgers, including Mark Landis. She says even though what he was doing was wrong, the process was helping him manage his mental illness by giving him a sense of purpose and by...
COLETTE LOLL: Feeding his desire for acceptance and friendship and camaraderie, and simply to be liked and respected.
BLAIR: Earlier this month Colette Loll, the filmmakers and Mark Landis attended a screening of the documentary "Art And Craft" at a conference for mental health professionals and families affected by mental illness. When it was over, Landis received a standing ovation.
LOLL: To them, Mark was a symbol of hope and wellness and productivity.
BLAIR: As Mark Landis puts it in the film, for him, copying is reassuring. So was the attention he got from museums when they thought he was a philanthropist. The real Mark Landis is living on disability. To keep him busy and prevent him from trying to dupe more museums, Colette Loll and the filmmakers have set up a website where people commission him to make portraits from photographs. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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