Theft and forgery

in the world of art

It is very difficult to gain an exact idea of how many items of cultural property are stolen throughout the world and it is unlikely that there will ever be any accurate statistics


While we can't have accurate data on the extent of global art crime, what we do know is that art theft and forgery is big business and shows no sign of going away

Read on as we explore the art world's shady black market, some of history's biggest art heists and most prolific forgers and the efforts being undertaken to combat this perennial problem

Art forgeries

It is without doubt that forgery is dangerous, but it should also be argued that the business of art has made it so. Copies are a long tradition and adding such high values to art have changed the nature of forgeries and so now it is more serious than ever before

Ruba Asfahani, specialist in Contemporary Arab and Iranian art

To combat art crime the FBI established a rapid deployment Art Crime Team in 2004 consisting of 14 special agents each responsible for addressing art and cultural property crime cases

The Art Crime Team has recovered more than 2,650 items valued at over $150 million

In the U.S., there are 16 art crime officers, 1 for every 21 million people

Each represents 1 million citizens

In the UK, New Scotland Yard has 2.5 art crime officers (1 is part time), 1 for every 26 million people

Each represents 1 million citizens

Intent to deceive

A great deal of art theft, particularly of the domestic kind, goes unreported; many fakes and forgeries are never detected, even after the perpetrators are exposed, while the illicit traffic in cultural objects looted from archaeological sites is now arguably beyond the control of law enforcement agencies

Dr. Tom Flynn, London-based independent art historian, critic and specialist on art

Some of The Most Incredible Forgeries

Select for further information

Han van Meegeren


Tony Tetro

Mark Hofmann

The Greenhalghs

Mark Landis

Wolfgang Beltracchi

Han van Meegeren

  • A struggling painter who felt unrecognised and decided to demonstrate his genius by imitating masters
  • His forgeries reached the equivalent of $60 million for six fake Vermeers sold on the Dutch market
  • Had to prove he was a master forger by creating another work in prison
  • Sentenced to 1 year imprisonment but died of a heart attack before he could serve a day


  • Fame built on forgery
  • He made copies of major works before ageing them with smoke and swapping them for the originals

Tony Tetro

  • Forger of the 1970s and 1980s
  • Once an altar boy, married at 16 and became a father at 17
  • Perfectionist who never had formal art lessons, but learned from books, paintings and experimentation
  • Works were regularly passed off as legitimate works in museums, galleries, and auction houses worldwide
  • In an interview with ACCLAIMag, when questioned why he did it, Tetro said “I was broke and I was married, and I started copying paintings for something to do because it was an inexpensive thing to do. But it was more than that—I enjoyed doing it”

Mark Hofmann

  • Forger and murderer
  • His forgeries fooled experts and members of his church, and caused the deaths of two people
  • Hofmann's most notorious forgery was known as “The Salamander Letter”
  • Now a prisoner for life who sits in a 7-by-10-foot cell in Utah State Prison

The Greenhalghs

  • British Family
  • Shaun Greenhalgh created forgery over a seventeen-year period between 1989 and 2006 in collaboration with his mother aged 83 and father aged 84
  • Forgeries were worth approximately $11 million yet they lived in abject poverty
  • Sentenced by Scotland Yard to a four year, eight month prison sentence

Mark Landis

  • Arguably one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history
  • Diagnosed as a schizophrenic at 17
  • Tricked over 60 museums in 20 states into believing his masterfully created replicas were authentic artworks
  • Produced fakes and donated them to museums and non-profit groups by using cover stories and dressing as a priest to enhance his credibility
  • Landis never profited from his forgeries, he stated “If there’s any such thing as attention-deficit disorder I’ve got it. I was always happy with just making a good superficial impression and then, fortunately, when a museum found out, I was long gone. So I didn’t have to face anything.”

Wolfgang Beltracchi

  • A German art forger, artist and a former hippie
  • Beltracchi stated he has forged hundreds of paintings by over 50 artists and stated in his SPIEGEL Interview “I never decided to become an art forger. I was aware of my talent at an early age, and I used it foolishly. This developed over the years. In my heart, I don't see myself as a criminal”
  • Sentenced to six years in prison

If a forger’s work is taken to be that of a great master, then the forger considers that he's just as good as Picasso

Noah Charney, author and art historian

Your Best Protection Against Forgeries Is To Know:

If, how or where it's usually titled, dated or numbered

What gallery, manufacturer, or supplier tags or labels it's likely to have

What their brush strokes look like

Where they typically sign on their art

What colours and media they sign in

How they sign (full name, initials, first initial & full last name)

What their favourite subject matters and compositions are

What the art looks like from the back

What the bottom looks like if it's a sculpture

How it's usually framed, mounted, or displayed

What media, materials, sizes and formats they usually work in

What Can People Do To Protect Themselves When Buying Art?

Certificate of Authenticity

Gallery of Art

Certificate of Authenticity ("COA")

A COA should be signed by either the artist who created the art, publisher of the art (in the case of limited editions), a confirmed established dealer or agent of the artist, or an acknowledged expert on the artist

Digital Authentication

Using a technique called wavelet decomposition, a picture is broken down into a collection of more basic images called sub-bands that are analysed to determine authorship