A Master of Art Forgery Eludes Dogged Local Tracker

The dynamic between art forger Mark Landis and former museum registrar/Cincinnati resident Matthew Leininger is the mythic and existential stuff of legends.

click to enlarge Art forger Mark Landis
Art forger Mark Landis

The dynamic between art forger Mark Landis and former museum registrar/Cincinnati resident Matthew Leininger is the mythic and existential stuff of legends. This is the ultimate game of cat and mouse played out in an all-too-real world stage that shrinks to human scale thanks to the immediate proximity of its recent act taking place in our own backyard — Leininger was the one who uncovered Landis as a fraud.

Landis will likely go down in history as one of the most prolific art forgers in our nation’s history. For 30 years he has produced recreations spanning styles and periods with what can only be described as the greatest of ease. It is a high-wire act, to be sure, a daring mix of immense talent and an even more shocking degree of chutzpah, as he displays an imperviousness in movement when he donates his works as originals to museums around the country — in many instances, the same piece to multiple galleries.

Watching the documentary Art and Craft from directors Sam Cullman (co-director of the Oscar-nominated If a Tree Falls), Jennifer Grausman (Emmy-nominated Pressure Cooker) and Mark Becker (Independent Spirit-nominated Romantico), the astute viewer will recognize Landis, a character we have seen before, albeit in fictional feature presentations, with assurance that stems from classic handsomeness and/or a dark passion to outwit those he believes have taken something from him or his family. Imagine, for a moment, Clive Owen in Spike Lee’s Inside Man, the delirious post-9/11 caper, a work of art in its precision and captivating style, with Denzel Washington as the officer in charge of the situation, attempting to gain the upper hand against a brilliant mastermind working at the top of his game. The two men trade sharply scripted repartee as motivations are sussed out and the cataclysmic endgame draws near.

Landis stymies such a comparison though because he is not that kind of charming rogue. There is a bumbling, comic aura around the man; as he shuffles along from place to place you get the sense that he is moving about his own head in much the same way. Thus, you underestimate Landis’ potential as a brilliant criminal mastermind. At best, he seeks dominion over his cluttered yet obviously beautiful talent.

It should be noted that Leininger is no Washington for that matter. He is a determined Everyman who happened upon a piece of a puzzle that no one else even realized was a puzzle in the first place and wouldn’t let go. It wouldn’t be hard to envision Art and Craft catching David Fincher’s attention, allowing him to cast Mark Ruffalo as Leininger, sending him on a Zodiac-style quest down a never-ending rabbit hole of forgeries. The pursuit would be the point in Fincher’s take, much as it is in real life because what becomes clear in this documentary is that Leininger has nothing to gain from exposing Landis.

In fact, that is the paradox inherent in each man, one that will confound audiences expecting the type of narrative closure most contemporary thrillers grant us. (Zodiac stands as an exception to the rule, which is why Fincher would be the perfect candidate to adapt this story into a feature film.) Neither man, Landis nor Leininger, gets anything out of their efforts.

What type of art forger is Landis? Why would a man of his singular talents produce these elaborate fakes, which could be worth thousands if not millions of dollars, and not seek to extract something for himself? He comes off as a piece of work, a curious fiction, an emotionally stunted genius with an unhealthy fixation on his mother (a nod to all the amateur psychologists who will watch the movie). His stunning ability, therefore, gets reduced in scale as we watch him, early on, pushing a cart down the aisles of the Hobby Lobby in search of art supplies. He has no small tight-knit crew of cohorts (think Michael Mann’s Heat, Ben Affleck’s The Town or even Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me) or the desire to amass a fortune that will never be enough. There will not be the dream of one last scam.

The game of forgery at its simple core is all that matters to Landis. For a man who could produce significant works under his own name, there is no stopping him — not even a 2012 gallery show at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning dedicated to his exquisite fakes and the documentation that allowed them to make their way into the art world. In that, we discover a trace of the familiar.


opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre. Q&As with Matthew Leininger and Aaron J. Cowan, director of DAAP Galleries, will follow the 7:30 p.m. screenings of the film on Friday and Saturday. More info: mariemonttheatre.com.

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