In the long and intricate history of fake art there are few stories more bizarre than the recent tale of Xiao Yuan, a talented librarian, a skilled painter and a daring thief.
In 2003 Xiao became head librarian at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in southeast China. Having written books on Chinese art, he soon noticed that the academy's art gallery contained several fakes. He thought them badly painted and believed he could do better. That suggested a scheme that could make him rich.
As a librarian he had a set of keys and could use the gallery on days when it was closed to the public. "I was very greedy and tempted," he says. He began to make copies of paintings, choosing the less well-known works of masters from the 17th century to the 20th. When necessary he used ancient paper and ink. When he finished a painting he stole the original and replaced it with his copy.
Over two years, 2004 to 2006, he copied 143 paintings and sold most of the originals through auction houses. He netted the equivalent of about $6-million.
Unnoticed, he joined the legion of thieves who operate in the art world around the globe, a vast community that plagues museums while generating a kind of shadowy folk literature of rumours that sometimes involve billionaires living with their stolen masterpieces in personal vaults. The most compelling mystery arises from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston 25 years ago. Thieves disguised as police stole 13 paintings and art objects, including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer, together valued at $500 million. All the art has vanished, but the case remains open, as a news story revealed last week. Old evidence is being reassessed, the FBI hasn't give up, and the Gardner offers a $5-million reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen art, no questions asked.
Art theft has been imported to China, along with capitalism and other highly developed practices of the West. But so far security systems have not kept up with crime. Theft-bysubstitution isn't entirely new and seems to exist in fantasy more than reality. But certainly it's not previously been tried on such a large scale.
It ended for Xiao when the gallery was moved elsewhere on campus, making it inaccessible for him. He retired from crime and used the money to buy real estate and increase his own art collection. A decade later he was caught when a graduate of the Guangzhou Academy noticed that paintings offered for sale in Hong Kong carried the university's seal.
In Guangzhou People's Intermediate Court last month, Xiao, age 57, admitted his guilt and apologized for his crimes; he awaits sentencing. Meanwhile, he told the court two stories about his experience.
His comments suggest Xiao is typical of art forgers the world over. His perverted pride and contempt for other artists recall Han van Meegeren, the most famous egomaniac among forgers. Rejected by the art world in the 1920s, van Meegeren determined to prove his critics wrong by imitating Vermeer and other masters. He never ceased to claim that his forgeries were justified and admirable.
Certainly they were good: One of his Vermeers was found by the Nazis to be so worth looting that it made its way into the collection of Hermann Göring.
Xiao said that an auction house rejected several of the authentic paintings he stole on the grounds that they appeared to be fraudulent. And before he resigned from the library he realized that his trick had occurred to someone else. Several of the paintings he made had been replaced, his copies stolen. So the Academy was exhibiting fakes of fakes and someone was selling, or trying to sell, art by Xiao.
He thought these secondary fakes were badly done. "I realized that paintings I had substituted 10 years ago had been substituted again," he said. "I could tell right away they weren't mine. The quality was too low." That may be annoying to him but imagine how the curators feel who must go through the whole collection and sort out the false from the true.
Fakes appear in Canadian art as well as everywhere else. The late Norval Morrisseau, a celebrated Ojibwa painter, was greatly upset by the frequent appearance of paintings attributed to him. In 2005 he set up the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society and asked art dealers to sell paintings bearing his name only if they were validated by the society. The man who faked some paintings by A.Y. Jackson a few decades ago followed a primitive clip-and-paste method. He acquired a Group of Seven book and made each fake by putting together bits from different paintings - a hill from one, a clump of trees from another. Soon he would have a picture that looked somewhat like a Jackson and definitely a Jackson no one had ever seen before.
Jackson himself turned up at a forgery trial and swore that he had nothing to do with these pictures. He was an amiable crown witness, more amused than affronted by this crime against his reputation.
In Canada art crime is relatively rare. But in China it's lately become frequent, to the alarm of curators and scholars. They open scores of new museums every year and consider any touch of failure an impediment to their attempt to offset the effects of the Cultural Revolution and revive traditional Chinese culture.
Two years ago the new and privately owned Jibaozhai Museum in the Hebei province created a national scandal when it was discovered that most of the 40,000 paintings and artifacts in its collection were fakes. The museum was just three years old, selfadvertised as a "patriotic education centre" to introduce young people to the Chinese past. The fakes were exposed and widely ridiculed on the Internet, to the embarrassment of the local government. One online comment proposed it become a museum of fakes with the slogan, "If you can't be the best, why not be the worst?" The authorities closed the museum and revoked its license. The widely published activities of Xiao Yuan, while thick with irony and amusing to an outsider, focus unwelcome attention on a troubled art community.