In his award-winning book, "Hot Art," Canadian journalist Joshua Knelman pulled back the veil on the multi-billion dollar world of art theft. Seemingly the stuff of capers like "The Thomas Crown Affair," the reality may not be quite as glamorous, but it is certainly just as profitable: Art theft is one of the largest grey market activities in the world.
So where does Mark Landis fit in? The master forger has duped American museums—over 40 of them in 20 states—into thinking he has given them the real thing. For almost 30 years, astonishingly, none of them cross-referenced the works they were receiving to see if they were legit. But Landis believes he's never done anything wrong. And it's kind of hard to argue, because unlike infamous forgers like Elmyr de Hory, Landis isn't doing it for profit.
"Art and Craft" is a sly, tongue-in-cheek documentary about a tiny, meek, aging man in Mississippi who just loves to copy art. Then he loves to concoct stories about how his well-off family came into ownership of these priceless works, spinning his tales successfully from small college museums to the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian.
His first deceit was in 1985, but it wasn't until 2008 that anyone suspected anything. Matt Leininger, then the registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, thought something was fishy with new prints he accepted from Landis, then set out to uncover all the scams he had pulled. Eventually, he recorded hundreds of pieces, pawned by Landis under several different aliases, all over the country.
There are a few things that make this remarkable. Landis is so gifted that he has passed Picasso and Dr. Seuss copies off as original, and has convinced museums that Magritte knock-offs and forged documents by Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were genuine articles. He works cheaply, buying frames from Hobby Lobby, wood from Home Depot (which he ages by staining it with instant coffee), and substitutes colored pencils for chalk and watercolors. He is also a schizophrenic who has suffered two life-altering breakdowns and lives on disability checks.
The story alone is mind-boggling, but directors Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman have also managed to stumble onto a tale that has interchangeable heroes and villains, depending on your perspective. Landis is nothing but a liar, you may believe at the beginning, warming to his sad personal story and the very real legal definition that indicates he's not committed a crime. You may likewise appreciate Landis' con as beautifully arranged pranks only to side with Leininger when his own struggles are revealed. Cullman and Grausman get full cooperation from both Landis and Leininger, going inside their homes and methods in the months leading up to a rather peculiar meeting between the two.
This is also a wonderfully made documentary. Most of them aren't. Cullman is a terrific cinematographer (he shot Eugene Jarecki's War on Drugs doc, "The House I Live In," a couple years ago) and the noirish score by guitarist Stephen Ulrich keeps up the illusion of intrigue throughout.
Mark Landis makes no apologies. He believes he's performing philanthropy; it's a word he uses over and over again. And maybe he is. A fake may be worthless in the marketplace, but who's to say that is has any less value in the eye of the beholder? If you would have otherwise never seen something in a museum or gallery that changes your life, is the artist more important than the art itself?