Art forger once posed as Jesuit priest to give his work away

Mark Landis is shown at home and at work on a "Picasso" in a scene from the documentary "Art and Craft," about an art forger who once posed as Jesuit priest who gave his work away. (CNS/Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories/Sam Cullman)

Washington — If you are of the mind that it is better to give than to receive, then this story is for you.

It has to do with Mark Landis. He has spent much of his adult life as an art forger. And he was a good one, as he bounced around easily among different periods and styles in his forgeries.

One thing that was different about Landis was that he gave away his forgeries. That would have put the recipients of his generosity in a pickle, thinking they owned the genuine article only to be rudely surprised should they try to cash in on their good, er, fortune.

Such a scam cannot last forever, and Landis, thinking that the police might be on to him, started donning disguises and taking on various false identities to give away his art.

One of his last aliases was that of a Jesuit priest.

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Sam Cullman, one of the co-directors of "Art and Craft," a documentary feature that looks into Landis' art and life, said Landis was "inspired" to become a Jesuit priest.

The source of that inspiration? Look no further than your television, for the "Father Brown" mysteries from England shown on PBS stations.

"As Mark would say, everything you need to know about being a good priest is in the 'Father Brown' series," Cullman told Catholic News Service in a Sept. 19 telephone interview from New York City. He and his other co-director, Jennifer Grausman, were there promoting the film, which is scheduled to open in October.

Grausman, who has an art background, said she had read an article on Landis in 2011 that appeared in The New York Times. "I read the article, tore it out, put it away and couldn't stop thinking about it," she added.

Her next step was talking to Cullman. Then Grausman got in touch with Matthew Leininger, who had been duped by Landis and was intent on exposing him to the art world. Leininger, she said, "was very interested in telling his story."

Landis had been suffering from a mental illness. And after his father died, he concentrated on his work with even greater intensity, according to Cullman -- who had just left a meal with Landis to call CNS for the interview.

Unlike others in Landis' line of work, he never got paid for his art. But to Cullman, he is a forger all the same: "Of course. He makes copies of other people's work," he said.

But since he was exposed, he has gone legit. And his mental illness has abated. He even has a website to market his own paintings. "He can reach his public and his public can reach him," Cullman said.

Landis' own style is a bit of an enigma, according to Cullman. "There aren't too many Mark Landis originals in the world," he said. "He's done a portrait of his mother as Joan of Arc, derived from a photograph or some sort of other painting. He's referring to other works and deriving new works out of them."

"As far as we know, he's stopped forging and as a byproduct of some the earlier encounters, he's done some commissions -- a fake Monet for someone's living room," Grausman said. "He was also included in an exhibition about forgery. The curator has taken an interest in Mark's story."

Grausman and Cullman hope the public takes an interest in Landis' story, too, when "Art and Craft" opens across the country.


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