Visiting The Museum of Art Fakes (Faelschermuseum), Vienna

This small (single gallery) museum boasts only about 25 – 40 works, but is well worth the visit for anyone with an affinity for Old Master art. I've heard it said that the 20th century was the Golden Age of art forgery and after a visit here it’s easy to believe. I have to admit - I love this type of stuff. If this crew of forgers hadn't made the Old Masters market so dangerous to invest in, because of all the forgeries, the contemporary art market might never have become as hot as it has. It seems half the drawings at any given auction have a provenance of no more than 50 years. Yet they claim to be 500 years old.

If you’re into the art world, not in a superficial way but if you’ve followed the markets and headlines for any significant length of time, it is almost impossible not to become fascinated with tales of forgery. The vast sums of money, quirky personalities, and significant talents which combine to make a black-market sale oftentime read like Hollywood scripts. Fortunes are spent on fakes and reputations that take a lifetime (or in the instances of art dealerships, several generations of lifetimes) to build are lost overnight. I also find tales of art forgery fascinating for their face value, sociologically. So of course I'm going to gush about this place. I especially liked that although they were small, they represented a who's who of Master forgers. Elmyr de Hory, Han van Meegeren, and my favorite... Eric Hebborn.

6 or 7 years ago I happened across an article about a master forger named Eric Hebborn and wound up reading everything about the guy I could find. I was working as a night guard at The Met in NYC at the time and I recognized a drawing from the magazine, as being the same as one I'd just sketched in the hallway not 30 minutes earlier. The museum maintained that it was by Piranesi but Hebborn was claiming it as his own handiwork. The Met obviously disagreed because they wanted to believe that their drawing was real. They'd paid real money for it. And I found it fascinating. Hebborn was a British artist who claimed to have authored 2,000+ Old Master drawings and prints which were currently residing in the collections of the world’s most famous museums. He’d duped literally dozens of museum curators and art connoisseurs over his decades-long career, and had a disdain for the art world in which he operated. As a trusted authority, being both an Old Master dealer and an artist himself, he made his name by selling and reselling drawings… most of which, it turns out, were fakes he created in his spare time. And it went on for decades. When he was finally caught he nearly single-handedly sank Colnaghi, one of the largest and most respected art dealers in London, an intergenerational business whose doors had been opened for hundreds of years.

After attending art school he worked for several years as a professional art restorer working on Old Master and Baroque era paintings. So he had experience working with authentically antiqued canvases and drawings and knew how to hide his handiwork. He went the extra mile, when creating his fakes, by using authentic Renaissance (or Baroque) papers, materials, canvases and methods. He would re-create the styles of various artists and then artificially-age his drawings and paintings so cleverly, that they appeared “real” to even the most expert observer. After writing The Art Forgers Handbook (a recipe book for aspiring forgers), and his own autobiography (Drawn To Trouble) he threatened to write a 3rd book detailing where all his forged Old Master drawings now resided and was subsequently murdered late one evening while returning to his home in Rome.

The prevailing theory behind his murder in 1996, because the killer was never caught, was that he was slain to keep him quiet because his silence was worth hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, of dollars. It would have cost unimaginably huge sums, and many sterling reputations would have been ruined, had he fingered 2,000+ fakes in museums and private collections around the world. So someone bashed his head in.


Anyway. This museum is entirely about these sorts of fakes, and the men who made them. The above-mentioned Eric Hebborn was well represented with several drawings and even one of his paintings (an atmospheric oil done in the style of JMW Turner).

The Faelshermuseum– small as it is – does a great job introducing visitors to some of the biggest names in art forgery. Men like Han van Meegeren, who sold a “Vermeer” to infamous Nazi art collector Hermann Goering, and would only admit it was a fake once the Dutch government imprisoned him and put him on trial (for his life) on treason charges for, "selling national treasures” to the Nazis. The verdict would have been death. His copy was so good nobody believed he’d done it himself, so they made him paint another in front of witnesses - and the judge let him off once he’d successfully completed another (of his several) Vermeers.

Also impressive were the forgeries of a man whose work I hadn't seen before, Edgar Mrullaga, whose specialty was imitating Rembrandt.

If you’re ever in the area and are looking for a museum that’s a bit different, you’ll find the Fakes Museum to be… original!

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