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Vienna: The Museum of Art Fakes

The Rembrandt (or should that be Rembr-aren’t?) etchings on the wall look indistinguishable from the originals. They’re the handiwork of Edgar Mrugalla, a one-time master forger who came clean in 1987, providing the German police with a 167 page document detailing over 2,500 fakes he’d made over the course of his career. He used coffee, tea and sun to make the sketches and paintings look far older than they are, but clear talent was the main tool.

Vienna: The Museum of Art Fakes
Image: By Peter Gugerell (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Mrugalla was the inspiration for an art museum that might not be Vienna’s finest, but is arguably the most interesting. The Fälschermuseum dips a toe into the murky world of fakes and forgeries, and it’s the stories that prove more interesting than the artworks themselves.

These include a wonderful tale about Michaelangelo who, as a student, was given the task of copying a painting. It was so good that he switched them, submitting the original as his copy. When word got out, it played no small part in establishing his reputation.

For brazenness, it’s hard to go beyond German painter and art restorer Lothar Malskat. In 1951, he was commissioned to restore the frescoes in Lubeck’s Marienkirche, which had been damaged by Second World War bombing raids.

The church’s restored frescoes were such a source of pride that the West German government issued two million stamps depicting them. But Malskat later confessed that he simply whitewashed over the old frescoes and painted new ones.

Han Van Meegeren became notorious for faking Vermeers, with his forged version of Christ and the Adulteress being flogged to Hermann Goering for an astronomical sum. He was put on trial as a collaborator for selling Dutch heritage to the enemy, and had to fake another Vermeer under the supervision of a committee of experts to prove that he’d duped the Nazi bigwig.

The museum’s co-founder, Diane Grobe, has no doubt that there are forgeries hanging in major galleries and museums around the world. But she also says there’s not much of a market for fakes of the old masters any more — the money tends to be in forgeries of works by 20th-century artists and the creation of ‘undiscovered’ works by them.

The biggest surprise comes in how few fakes there are on the museum’s walls – there are around 80. And there are two reasons for this. The first is that interesting, high quality ones are hard to get hold of. The second is that they’re very expensive. Weirdly, there has become a very healthy market for big name fakes. A Van Meegeren Vermeer can sell for over £62,000.

This, in turn, creates an extraordinary market for fakes of fakes. Konrad Kujau is the classic example for this. If the name seems familiar, it’s because he was the infamous creator of the fake Hitler Diaries that were sold for hefty sums to newspapers around the world. A couple of pages from the diaries are on the wall — and they trade for around £500 a page. But the master forger attracted other forgers — in 2010, a woman claiming to be his great-niece was convicted for selling Kujau’s supposed ‘original fakes’ for up to £2,950 a pop. And when someone starts flogging copies of those fakes, the art world truly has turned into a paint and easel version of Inception