'Art and Craft' Paints a Fascinating Portrait of a Master Art Forger

Oscilloscope
'Art and Craft'

Mark Landis impersonated a priest to convince museums to hang his Picasso and Disney fakes

Mark Landis was one of the most prolific art forgers ever, replicating hundreds of works by masters ranging from Pablo Picasso to Walt Disney. When he was exposed a few years ago -- first in 2008, but not fully until 2012 -- 46 of America's most respected museums were forced to remove drawings and paintings from their esteemed walls and embarrassingly admit they had been duped. Possibly the most remarkable aspect of this story was that Landis was never prosecuted, largely because he never once made a dime off his forgeries.

When Jennifer Grausman -- co-director of Art and Craft, a new documentary about Landis -- read a New York Times article about him in 2011 she was intrigued.

“The Times’ article said they were unable to reach Mark for comment,” Grausman tells The Hollywood Reporter, “Which led me to wonder, who is this guy?”

The reality was that this international man of mystery was hiding in plain sight. Grausman and co-director Sam Cullman found him living in his mother’s house in Mississippi. Landis, a soft-spoken and gentle man, welcomed the documentarians with open arms, first on the phone and then into his home, where a large portion of the film was shot.

“I’m a lonely old man,” Landis, seated on the nearby couch, tells THR. Pointing to Grausman and Cullman, Landis continues: "What old man wouldn’t want two young, good-looking, sophisticated New Yorkers to pay attention to you and listen to your story?”

What Grausman and Cullman soon learned in their visits with Landis was that as a teenager he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffered multiple behavioral disorders in early adult life. His mental illness led to him become isolated and left him on the margins of society. His 30-year stint as an art forger became the thing that gave his life purpose and allowed him to interact with the outside world.

“I’m not an artist,” Landis wants to make clear. “It’s something I enjoyed. It was a hobby I became addicted to. I liked meeting people in the art world and giving my work away.”

One of the more fascinating aspects of Landis’s “addiction to philanthropy,” which is how he describes his life's work, is how he went about getting his replicas into museums. His most common trick was to pose as someone who had recently lost a family member and was looking to donate an inherited piece of art. He also wasn’t above dressing up as a priest to sway unsuspecting curators.

When Grausman and Cullman were filming in 2012, Landis had already been exposed, but not 100 percent retired. The filmmakers knew following Landis on one of his last capers would be an amazing get, but there weren’t sure if they could pull it off.

“It took us a while to summon the courage to do it,” explains Cullman, an experienced documentary cinematographer. “The logistics are difficult. On most documentaries, you set up a situation like that beforehand -- ‘We’ll be coming in on this such-a-such date, can we bring cameras, don’t wear a striped shirt, etc." -- and with this we obviously couldn’t do that. We just had to follow Mark into the room and see what happened."

"What I learned in pulling it off was the magic of what Mark had doing for 30 years," Cullman continues. "If you watch the film, [the museum employee] looks into the camera once, but he is instantly drawn into Mark’s story and excited about the prospect of getting the art work.”

For Matthew Leininger, this lack of due diligence on the part of greedy institutions was an embarrassment to the profession. As a museum registrar working in Cincinnati and then Oklahoma, Leninger was the first to discover a Landis forgery and then proceeded to dedicate his professional life to exposing all the Landis fakes hanging on museum walls throughout the country.

Leininger, like Landis, welcomed Grausman and Cullman into his home to film. Together Landis and Leininger make for unusual adversaries, giving the documentary a cat-and-mouse-like narrative structure.

Landis, who is sad to be retired, isn’t angry at the man who ended his career. When asked if he could see Leininger’s point-of-view -- that his work doesn’t belong in museums -- Landis shrugs his shoulders.

“I haven’t really given it much thought," he says. "I didn’t mean any harm.” 

Art and Craft  is now playing at Lincoln Center and The Angelika in New York and opens at the Brooklyn BAM Cinematek and The Nuart in Los Angeles on Friday. You can watch the trailer below:

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