Odd and prolific art forger donated fakes to SLU museum
ST. LOUIS • The laborers heap straw into a horse-drawn wagon, against a backdrop of 19th-century Paris skyline. The painting’s lower-right corner bears the signature of Stanislas Lépine, a sought-after early impressionist.
If genuine, the piece would have been a coup for the St. Louis University Museum of Art. Lépine’s works hang at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, London’s National Gallery and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
But the painting it received in 2008 — “Terrassiers, au Trocadero” — put the SLU museum in different company. The Lépine was a fake, and four other American museums had been given identical forgeries. At least 44 institutions received phony works from the same donor, a mysterious Southerner named Mark Augustus Landis, according to Matthew Leininger, the director of museum services at the Cincinnati Art Museum, who has spent four years tracking the elusive forger.
In a Jan. 11 story, the New York Times described Landis as “one of the most prolific forgers American museums have encountered in years.” In an exclusive interview with Landis published on Jan. 21, the Financial Times said he was “responsible for the longest, strangest forgery spree the American art world has known.”
What makes the fakes particularly unusual is that Landis doesn’t seek to profit from his forgeries. He donates the works — often pretending they came to him in an inheritance windfall — and he doesn’t even request tax-exempt forms from the institutions, which would allow him to record the gifts as tax deductions.
Because he took no money for his forgeries, Landis has not been accused of any crime. That might not comfort those museums that have displayed his works, or those that spent money researching their authenticity.
If the story of fake philanthropy isn’t bizarre enough, there’s also the matter of Landis’ aliases. He’s donated works under several names, including “Steven Gardiner” and, more recently, “Father Arthur Scott,” a Cadillac-driving Jesuit priest.
Father David Suwalsky, a genuine Jesuit and a former director of SLU’s museum, dealt with Landis over several months in 2008, before Landis adopted the alter ego of art-savvy priest. Landis — acting under his real name — gave three paintings to the university.
The website for the SLU museum shows two of the paintings. In addition to the fake Lépine, there’s a painting of a sailboat bearing the signature of French neo-impressionist Paul Signac. The website describes the Landis gifts as being in the “manner of” Lépine and Signac. (The third painting, not mentioned on the website, is a small landscape purportedly by Egon Schiele, an Austrian artist best known for his self-portraits and nudes.)
None of the paintings have been displayed as authentic works, said Clayton Berry, a SLU spokesman.
Landis said he gave three paintings to SLU in 2008 to honor his late father, whom he identified as Lt. Cmdr. Arthur Landis Jr. Landis told the university that his father was Catholic and from St. Louis, although a search of public records could find no evidence that Landis — who lives in Laurel, Miss., and is believed to be 55 — had any family connection to the area.
Suwalsky remembered Landis as being calm, if ‘slightly eccentric.” According to press accounts and photos, Landis is short, thin and balding with a high-pitched Southern accent. The Financial Times describes him as being easily distracted and says Landis has told others that he suffers from mental illness.
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