The Museum of Hoaxes
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Art Hoaxes
The Three Modiglianis, 1984
According to legend, when artist Amedeo Modigliani left Livorno, Italy in 1909, he dumped a number of sculptures in a canal, upset because they had been criticized by a friend. So in 1984, the city of Livorno decided to spend $35,000 to dredge the canal to see if they could find the lost works. They were delighted when three carved heads were fished out. Appraisers estimated them to be worth $1.5 million. But then three university students came forward and revealed they had made one of the heads — and had a videotape of its creation to prove it. Hopes that the other two heads were genuine were dashed when a local dockworker proved to be their creator.
The Unraveled Weaving Hoax, 1974
At the 12th Annual Mid-Mississippi Art Competition, held in October 1974, there were gasps of surprise when artist Alexis Boyar walked up to the stage to receive the blue ribbon and $50 cash prize he had won for his entry in the weaving category. The shock wasn't caused by the art. Rather, it was caused by the artist himself since he was a 6-year-old Afghan hound dog. His owners explained that the weaving had originally been an old mitten Alexis found during a walk in the park which he chewed into a "rather interesting shape." They elaborated, "We thought it was interesting enough to enter in competition, but we were surprised when it won a prize." More…
Pierre Brassau, Monkey Artist, 1964
Paintings by a previously unknown avant-garde French artist named Pierre Brassau, exhibited at an art show in Sweden, won praise from critics, one of whom described Brassau's work as having "the delicacy of a ballet dancer." What the critics didn't know was that Brassau was actually a chimpanzee named Peter from Sweden's Boras zoo. A journalist had come up with the idea of exhibiting Peter's work as a way of putting critics to the test — would they be able to tell the difference between modern art and chimpanzee art? To the great amusement of the press, the critics failed the test. More…
Ghost Artists, 1952
On February 5, 1952, a small ad ran on the theatrical page of the Washington Post offering the services of a company of "ghost artists": "Too busy to paint? Call on the Ghost Artists? We paint it, you sign it." The idea of ghost artists caught the interest of the media, and a report about the company went out over the wire services and appeared in newspapers nationwide. The ghost artists were said to be earning lucrative fees from executives who wanted to impress their friends. Satisfied clients included military men, government officials, doctors, businessmen, and a Wall Street broker who commissioned an entire exhibition in order to break... More…
Han van Meegeren, 1947
In 1947 Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), a Dutch artist and art dealer, was arrested for collaborating with the Nazis. He was charged with selling a painting by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) titled 'Christ and the Adulteress' to Reich Marshal Hermann Goering. This painting was considered a national treasure, making it a crime to sell it to the enemy. Van Meegeren admitted selling the painting to Goering, but he defended himself by revealing that the painting was a forgery which he had painted himself. Surely it wasn't a crime to cheat the Nazis, he argued. More…
Naromji, 1946
In November 1946, the Los Angeles Art Association included a painting titled "Three Out of Five", by a previously unknown artist, Naromji, in an exhibition of abstract art. The work hung beside works by well-known modern artists and was given a price tag of $1000. But the Art Association was embarrassed when, at the end of the month, the publicist/prankster Jim Moran revealed that he was the true author of the painting. Naromji was Moran spelled backwards, with a ji "added for confusion." The title, "Three Out of Five," referred to a brand of hair restorer since, Moran said, abstract painting made him want to "tear his hair." More…

Van Gogh’s Ear Exhibited, 1935
The illustrator Hugh Troy was convinced that most of the people at New York's Van Gogh exhibit were there out of lurid interest in the man who had cut off his ear, not out of a true appreciation for the art. To prove his point, he fashioned a fake ear out of a piece of dried beef and mounted it in a velvet-lined shadow box. He snuck this into the museum and stood it on a table in the Van Gogh exhibit. Beside the box he placed a sign: "This is the ear which Vincent Van Gogh cut off and sent to his mistress, a French prostitute, Dec. 24, 1888." Sure enough, it drew a large crowd. More…
The Disumbrationist School of Art, 1924
Paul Jordan Smith, a Los Angeles-based novelist, was upset that his wife's art was panned by critics as being too "old school". So he devised an elaborate spoof of modern art. He submitted crude works of his own creation to exhibitions, claiming they were the work of a Russian artist Pavel Jerdanowitch (a name he had invented), the founder of the Disumbrationist School of Art (another invention of his). As anticipated, the works were praised by critics. When Smith revealed the hoax to the LA Times in 1927, he argued that it showed that the art currently in fashion was "poppycock" promoted by critics who knew very little about art. More…
Michelangelo’s Cupid, 1495
As a young man, Michelangelo sculpted a sleeping cupid. He, or an accomplice, then buried it in acidic earth to give it an appearance of great age. The plan was to pass it off as an antiquity, to fetch a higher price. The artificially aged sculpture was bought by Cardinal Raffaello Riario of San Giorgio who, when he learned of the forgery, demanded his money back. But impressed by Michelangelo's talent, the Cardinal didn't press charges. More…
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.