10 Famous Fake Antiques and the Suckers Who Bought Them

This statue, which is on exhibit at the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu, has a questionable background. © GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

A real Louis Vuitton handbag will have an LV logo engraved on the zipper pull; a fake will not. And the letter O shapes on a real Louis Vuitton will be round, not oval. The small details of the item keep its secrets, and those secrets are often well kept -- the sale of fake Louis Vuitton bags isn't the only shady business that's booming. The International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition estimates counterfeiting is a $600 billion a year industry, about 7 percent of all the goods traded globally [source: Elliot].

Just like the details of an Alma bag will give away whether or not it's legitimate, the devil is in the details when determining a fake antique, too. Spotting forgeries isn't all that easy – and not just for those of us who casually browse estate sales or vintage shops. It's difficult even for the pros, and even when they have experts and carbon-14 testing to rely on. Here we have 10 famous forgeries and those who were fooled into thinking those fakes were legit. Let's talk first about how the Henry Ford Museum found that the difference between The Brewster Chair and The Great Brewster Chair is more than just a single word.

10
The Brewster Chair
The Brewster chair, had it been authentic, would have been of historical significance because of the status in history of William Brewster, whose signature appears on the “Mayflower Compact” -- the first constitution written in America. © Three Lions/Getty Images

In 1970, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. acquired a chair thought to be from William Brewster, one of the men who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1620.

But as it turns out, the chair wasn't made in the 1600s. It was made in 1969 by an artist named Armand LaMontagne, who built and aged the chair in his workshop. The Great Brewster Chair, LaMontagne nicknamed it, is made from green oak (which warps when the wood dries out) and assembled with the same style of wooden pins used during the period. But the genesis of the chair came from spite after a run-in with an antiques dealer who questioned LaMontagne's background, not out of 17th-century practicalities.

As the story goes, LaMontagne gave away the forgery, and for years kept his creation a secret. In 1975, he heard the Henry Ford Museum had purchased his chair for $9,000, believing it was authentic to the New England period [source: Reif]. By 1977, the word was out; the chair was a fake, confirmed with X-rays to have been made with modern tools.

The Henry Ford Museum continues to keep and display the chair, but as an educational tool rather than an antique.

9
The Lying Stones of Dr. Beringer
Illustration of fake fossils that Berniger believed to be real, from his book “Lithographiae Wirceburgensis,” published in 1767. © SSPL/Getty Images

At the University of Wurzurg, Germany, Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer was a professor of medicine, but he had a special interest in fossils. In 1725, Beringer got his hands on what might have been the find of the century -- three youths had found strange stones, each with an engraving (such as animals, birds, insects, astronomical symbols and Hebraic letters), and offered to sell them to Beringer. He purchased them, and many more the boys continued to find and sell to him over the next several months. In 1726, Beringer published a work entitled, Lithographia Wirceburgensis, detailing 204 of the stones in his collection and presenting a number of theories about the origin of the stones.

It turned out, though, the origin of the stones was nothing more than a forgery. The stones were fabricated, chiseled by hand and sold to Beriginer as a hoax.

8
Hitler's Diaries
The last known copy of the fake Hitler diaries was sold at auction in 2004 to an anonymous bidder for 6,500 euros. © MICHAEL URBAN/AFP/Getty Images

In April 1983, Gerd Heidemann, the London correspondent for Stern, a weekly German news magazine, got his hands on Adolf Hitler's diaries. The diaries, allegedly written between 1932 and 1945, were found in East Germany, apparently in the wreckage of a plane crash where they had been hidden since that time.

Stern paid an estimated $6 million for the diaries, and the plan was to publish them in partnership with The Sunday Times of London [source: Levy]. The Times (along with Newsweek) brought in experts to confirm the document's authenticity -- to historian Hugh Trevor-Roper the diaries appeared genuine, at least the handwriting. But as Stern began to share the documents, it became clear they were not authentic -- in fact, they were a modern forgery containing historical mistakes, written in tea-stained composition books -- and as it turns out, Trevor-Roper, who reviewed the documents for their authenticity, couldn't read German. While the documents had come from Germany, they had not come from Hitler; Heidemann had bought the faked diaries from an art dealer (and forger) named Konrad Kajau.

7
Amarna Princess
Because artifacts related to King Tutankhamen are extremely popular with museum goers, a genuine statue of one of his relatives would be a huge visitor draw for a museum. © SOEREN STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

In 2003, both the British Museum and Christie's authenticated an ancient Egyptian statue of the granddaughter of King Tutankhamen, dating the Amarna Princess as 3,300 years old.

The Bolton Museum purchased the piece that same year, but shortly after it went on display in 2004 it was discovered to be a fake. The princess, as it turns out, is not a real antiquity. She really came from Bolton, Greater Manchester, England, and was made by Shawn Greenalgh in his parents' shed. Greenalgh and his parents made and sold forgeries for more than 17 years, earning more than a million dollars running their scheme.

Greenhalgh was jailed for four years for fraud and money laundering, and his parents, George and Olive, were given suspended jail sentences for conspiracy to defraud.

The Amarna statue is now the property of the London Metropolitan Police, and has been displayed in an exhibition about forgeries at the Bolton Museum.

6
Christ and His Disciples at Emmaus
Van Meegeren’s forgeries have become so famous that the Van Beuningen Museum in the Netherlands had an exhibition of the faker’s work in 2010. © ROBIN UTRECHT/AFP/Getty Images

Dutch artist Han van Meegeren is known for his forgeries of Johannes Vermeer's paintings, and "Christ and His Disciples at Emmaus" may be the most famous -- or infamous -- fake in his repertoire.

Van Meegeren was a skilled artist in his own right, but he never denied his forgeries even after they were sold into the art world (allegedly as part of an Old Masters collection). His work "Christ and His Disciples at Emmaus" was probably painted in 1936, and certified as a legitimate Vermeer in 1937 by art historian Abraham Bredius, who declared the find an untouched masterpiece from Vermeer's hand after two days of consideration. Bredius' verdict was published in Burlington Magazine.

"Christ and His Disciples at Emmaus" went on to sell for a hefty price, as did many of van Meegeren's forgeries at the time -- he's thought to have made about $30 million (adjusted for today's dollar) [source: NPR]. The fake Vermeers weren't exposed until 1945, when the sale of the fake "The Woman Taken in Adultery" to the Nazi party's Hermann Goerin led authorities to van Meegeren, but not for what you might think. He wasn't being outed as a forger; he was charged with collaborating with the enemy. In a surprise twist, during his testimony the artist himself admitted he had forged the painting, as well as others.

5
The Shroud of Turin
The Shroud of Turin on display in the Turin Cathedral on March 30, 2013. While the authenticity of the shroud is still debated, the relic still holds religious significance for many Catholics. ©ALESSANDRO DI MARCO/AFP/Getty Images

The Shroud of Turin has been a controversial piece of cloth for centuries. The shroud is considered one of the holiest relics by Catholics, who believe the cloth was Jesus' burial shroud and bears the image of his face. But there is nothing but faith as confirmation of its legitimacy, and in 1988 carbon-14 dating testing found fibers in the linen cloth were from the Middle Ages, confirming for the scientific community the shroud was a forgery and not from the time of Jesus' crucifixion.

In 2005, however, new findings that the cloth is actually between 1,300 and 3,000 years old were published in Thermochimica Acta [source: BBC News]. This suggests that the shroud was much older than the estimates from the 1980s, which dated the shroud from between 1260 and 1390 A.D. -- a mistake that's being blamed on samples taken from a patch in the linen rather than from the original cloth for the 1988 carbon testing.

While the legitimacy of the shroud is still unknown, the church does allow for rare appearances, even after the 1988 forgery claims. The shroud was seen on TV in 2013, but prior to that hadn't been given a public viewing since 1973.

4
The Virgin and Child with an Angel
The forged version of "The Virgin and Child with an Angel." © BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

In 2010, the National Gallery in London discovered that an item in their collection, a 15th-century oil painting, was a fake.

"The Virgin and Child with an Angel," considered to be an early work by artist Francesco Francia, was acquired by the gallery in 1924. In 1954, a nearly identical work showed up at an auction in London, raising a few eyebrows about the authenticity of both paintings. When the London painting was confirmed authentic in 1988, the National Gallery took a closer look at the painting in their collection.

The piece was perhaps not the antiquity they thought. In fact, it was more likely from the 19thcentury, not 1490 as previously estimated. Because of modern scientific testing, experts were able to uncover several flaws, including paint pigments that weren't available during the Renaissance and a sketch drawn in graphite pencil (which didn't exist in in the 15th century) beneath the paint layer. The painting was also coated in resin and cracks had been simulated, both of which give the art an aged appearance.

3
Livre des Sauvages
Domenech mistook these crude drawings made by a child for Native American symbols. Portion of page 56 of Domenech’s 1861 book “Le verite sur le Livre des sauvages,” retrieved from Google Books

Emmanuel Domenech was a French missionary who traveled to America in 1846, was ordained a Catholic priest in San Antonio, Texas in 1848, and continued his missionary work and travel throughout the American Southwest and Mexico until 1850 when he returned to France. He published books about his experiences with Native American culture and his frontier adventures, including a work entitled, "Manuscrit pictographique Americain, precede d'une Notice sur l'ideographie des Peaux-Rouges," a publication in which Domenech attempted to explain a collection of symbols and crude drawings given to him by a librarian at the Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal in Paris.

Domenech considered the document, which he referred to as "Livre des Sauvages," to be important in Native American culture, but when revealed to the public, it was quickly debunked as pages of doodlings and gibberish created by a German child.

2
Donation of Constantine
Though the Donation of Constantine document was a forgery, the alleged gift to Pope Sylvester I was so important for so long that it was often depicted in art like this fresco in the Chapel of St. Sylvester, Basilica of Four Crowned Saints, Rome, Italy. © Prisma/UIG/Getty Images

The Donation of Constantine was a letter thought to be written by Roman Emperor Constantine, gifting land (parts of the western Roman Empire, which today would be northern Italy) to Pope Sylvester I for curing his leprosy and for converting him to Christianity.

As it turns out, the lands acquired in 756 by the papacy were more likely due to Pope Stephen II's negotiations with Pepin the Short and political games between the church and the Frankish Empire than any alleged donation.

The Donation of Constantine was revealed as a forgery in 1440, after Lorenzo Valla pointed out several factual errors in the document, including references to temples that did not yet exist when the document was allegedly drafted -- and the problem that Constantine never suffered from leprosy. The Catholic church recognized the forgery and returned the land to Italy in 1929.

1
The Getty Kouros
Visitors look at the possibly fake statue at the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu, Calif. on April 18, 2011. ©GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

A kouros is a statue of a naked youth; this boy is 6.7 feet (2 meters) tall, stands with his arms at his sides, his left foot forward, and he is looking straight ahead. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., first laid eyes on a now controversial Greek kouros in the 1980s, and is rumored to have paid as much as $12 million for what may or may not be a fake [source: Muchnic].

The museum bought the statue in 1985 from a Basel art dealer after testing and studying the piece for two years. The statue is thought to be from the Archaic Greek period, but the trouble is the Getty kouros has a few qualities that make confirming its authenticity difficult.

Scholars, art dealers and scientists have all taken a crack at the mystery. Scientifically, the statue seems as though it could come from the hands of a late 6th-century B.C. sculptor. The stone, for example, is ancient marble from the island of Thasos, and the tool markings match with the Archaic Greek period. But there is question whether or not the de-dolomitization (the way the surface of the stone has aged) is artificial, and the choice of marble during this time period is also questioned. Stylistically, the Getty kouros is a bit of a problem. It's like a quilt, blending a mix of early and late styles -- and those same stylistic problems also appear on a torso of another kouros that has since proven to be a fake.

Until the sculpture's authenticity is confirmed, the display notes for the Getty kouros remark that the sculpture may date back to 530 B.C., or it may be a modern forgery dating only back to about 1980.

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Author's Note: 10 Famous Fake Antiques and the Suckers Who Bought Them

I remember the first time I saw the Mona Lisa. She seemed so small, and not really what I had imagined. (What is it with great works of art that make them seem so large in your imagination?) But she was somehow more stunning than I'd imagined, as well. So when I got to see the Getty kouros in Malibu, I wasn't sure what to expect. Is it fake or not, and if it's a forgery instead of a great antiquity, is it still interesting because of its mystery? I'm curious what they'll find out.

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Sources

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