‘Art and Craft’: Spotlight on the life of an art counterfeiter

riff-2014 - Art and Craft - Still hi-res

In his cheeky 1973 documentary F for Fake, Orson Welles related the words of one of the world’s foremost art counterfeiters: “Do you think I should confess? To what? Committing masterpieces?” You can see his point: the greatest counterfeiters have been able to pull the wool over the eyes of patrons and museums around the world. They must be doing something right.

Mark Landis belongs to this special class of human beings. A man who spent decades replicating artwork from the old masters to Dr. Seuss, Landis’ unusual talent is highlighted in Art and Craft, an engrossing feature opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 3.

Landis’ life story is as intriguing as his hobby. A navy brat born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1955, he spent his youth traveling from station to station with his parents, dropping into museums and galleries wherever he went and soaking up culture – both high and pop. By the time he was 8 years old, the youngster was carefully copying artwork from the exhibit catalogues his family collected.

His father died unexpectedly when he was 17, precipitating a nervous breakdown which saw Landis institutionalized for a year at Menninger Memorial Hospital in Topeka, Kansas – then one of the country’s foremost psychiatric facilities. Released after his eighteenth birthday, the young man traveled to Chicago and San Francisco to study photography, eventually settling down with his mother in Laurel, Mississippi in the wake of a hurricane.


After a failed attempt at earning a living in real estate, Landis returned to the comfort zone of his youth. Plunging headlong into ‘art replication’, he began churning out scores of duplicates of famous works by Schiele, Picasso, Magritte, and – no snob, he – Charles Schulz, amongst others.

Creating these duplicates, however, wasn’t enough. Soon Landis was driving from coast to coast, donating his works to any gallery or museum willing to accept his largesse – and there were plenty of takers. Always posing as an eccentric legatee, Landis didn’t have a hard time convincing star-struck curators that he was providing them with the real deal.

The rise of the internet, however, led an enterprising registrar named Matthew Leininger – himself a ‘victim’ at the Cincinnati Museum of Art – to discover that Landis had donated the ‘same’ great works to multiple establishments. As far as Leininger was concerned Landis was, indeed, “committing masterpieces”, and needed to be stopped.

A balding, rail-thin, stoop-shouldered diagnosed schizophrenic who chugs Milk of Magnesia when under stress, Landis makes for an uneasy but cooperative subject for filmmakers Mark Becker, Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman. Denying he’s committed fraud or any other crime – a statement confirmed by a representative of the FBI Art Crime Unit (who knew they had one?) – our anti-hero is ultimately revealed to be a charming and witty savant.

His workroom plastered with pop culture ephemera from the 1950s and ‘60s, Mark Landis plies his trade while a constant diet of old movies and I Love Lucy re-re-reruns unspool in the background. Appropriately, you can imagine him being portrayed on film by an old-school character actor such as Elisha Cook, Jr. or Sam Jaffe – and when he declares he needs “some little clouds here…happy little clouds”, you could even mistake him for TV art instructor Bob Ross.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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