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Those Picasso and Monet paintings aren’t what they seem at this fascinating art museum. And that’s precisely the point.

On the staircase down to the vaulted basement museum, visitors will encounter Austrian painter Egon Schiele’s Standing Girl in Plaid Garment. She is rightly tall and properly coiffed, appropriately checkered and partially nude. Her fingers are long and curled, eyes closed and in the midst of daydream. It is most definitely a Schiele. Except that it isn’t.

Vienna’s compact Museum of Art Fakes, or Fälschermuseum, contains nearly 100 works that could easily be attributed to some of history’s most celebrated artists: Picasso, Matisse, and Monet among them. However, the Monet and the Matisse are likely the handiwork of art forger Elmyr de Hory, while the Picasso lookalike has been credited to counterfeiter Edgar Mrugalla.

Mrugalla’s trickery hangs beside a picture of Picasso’s true version of The Frugal Repast. One could stare for hours and hope to notice what professional appraisers and esteemed critics had missed. But the wine bottle is placed so similarly, the hands just as slender, the woman’s breasts correctly lopsided. Is that an extra wrinkle in the tablecloth? A sharper lip? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Mrugalla’s work is in good company because every piece inside the Museum of Art Fakes is a masterful lie.

Mrugalla is not only a featured forger, but he was also the inspiration for the museum. When Diane Grobe, an abstract painter, met German counterfeiter Mrugalla, she found his tales of subterfuge and subversion fascinating. The more she studied art law and learned about the art market, her interest grew. Grobe started acquiring forged artwork and finally opened her museum in November 2005.

“We wanted to create an exciting, enlightening, and entertaining art museum for normal people without art knowledge,” Grobe explained.

Even antsy philistines, who might rush through the MoMA in under an hour, will find it difficult to peel themselves away from the forgeries here, along with the artwork stylized “in the manner of” a famed artist. The latter means that the artist had never actually created an original work; the counterfeiter just painted in the famed artist’s style and falsely signed it. For instance, van Gogh never made Foggy Afternoon, but if another artist expertly applied van Gogh’s techniques—whorls of clouds and flamelike trees—to such a canvas and signed it as Vincent van Gogh, it would not be a forgery, but a fake in the manner of the Dutch painter.

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Perhaps more captivating than the expertly crafted knockoffs of masterpieces are the stories behind these ingenious disrupters and their perfect lies.

“It’s not easy to buy good fakes with a good story,” Grobe said. “We collect only things with a good story.”

Take, for instance, the pair of counterfeit works from Tom Keating, an English forger. Keating viewed the gallery system as corrupt. To expose the so-called experts, he forged classics, planted “time bombs” in his paintings, covered them in glycerine, and painted over them. When the gallery cleaned one of his works, there would be a reaction with the glycerine layer beneath the paint, and the paint would disintegrate, revealing the dud.

Grobe ultimately wants visitors to be skeptical of the art market. Crediting Eric Hebborn—a rare concept at this museum—she repeated this English forger’s belief: “The world wants to be cheated.”

Hebborn first turned to the counterfeit world after feeling underappreciated by art critics. His da Vincis and Brueghels were flawless, selling for millions at prestigious auction houses like Christie’s. In time, Hebborn would publish The Art Forger’s Handbook. Shortly after the book was translated into Italian, someone, likely from the sacrosanct world he had disrupted, murdered Hebborn on the streets of Rome (the case remains unsolved).

Hebborn’s work is on display here, along with counterfeit coins and sham Chagalls. The collection includes Nazi-era fakes, too, such as a rare pound note (most were destroyed) that was created by Jews in the concentration camps. (Germany planned to flood the British market with these bills to inflate the pound.) The placard reads, “The notes are considered the most perfect counterfeits ever produced.”

Also from that period are Han van Meegeren sketches, which the Dutch art forger used to produce a painting in the manner of Vermeer that an infamous Nazi, Hermann Göring, would be tricked into buying. Nearby, three pages from the fake Hitler Diaries hang. German magazine Stern purchased the 60-volume series for the equivalent of nearly $4 million. The catch: Hitler never penned these books; instead, German forger Konrad Kujau perpetrated the scam, which was revealed because the qualities of ink and paper did not exist in the years when the diaries were supposedly written.

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One sign reminds museum visitors that the 20th century began with nearly 1,000 Rembrandts being claimed in public and private collections. But as forgeries were discovered, the number of legitimate Rembrandts dropped to just 300 by the end of the millennium. The sign also notes that the surrealist Salvador Dali might be the art world’s greatest scammer: He allegedly signed more than 20,000 blank canvases and allowed his students to paint in his style.

As Grobe rightly notes, “Behind every painting and artist there is an exciting story.” And some of the greatest tales just might exist behind these powerful lies, masquerading as masterpieces.

How to Visit: The Museum of Art Fakes is open Tues. through Sun. from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; entrance costs $US7 for adults. Visit the website here.  

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