scammers dupe art collectors, Virgin Mary painting move lips during prayer

Art of the Con cover image

‘The Art of the Con:’ how scammers dupe art collectors and run off with millions

The Art of the Con
The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World

By Anthony M. Amore

Palgrave Macmillan.
264 pp. $26

Anthony M. Amore’s savvy and informative book conveys a number of cautions about buying art that seem exceedingly self-evident. Among them:

A genuine Jackson Pollock painting should cost a lot more than $60,000.

It’s highly unlikely that an artist would present his assistant with 22 works valued at $6.5 million as a gift.

Someone selling Dale Chihuly glass sculptures from the back of an old SUV probably didn’t acquire them legitimately.

The same goes for a gallery owner who explains the lack of documentation for art she’s offering at below-market value by saying it’s from the estate of a deceased collector whose heirs want to keep the sale private.

Amore, head of security at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, provides chastening examples of people ignoring each of these warning signs and others nearly as blatant. The sad fact, as he writes in his introduction, is that the art market’s con artists never have any trouble finding marks who “believe, against all indications to the contrary, that they have actually stumbled on the rare deal that is both too good and true.”

The list of those snowed by the inventive scammers Amore profiles includes several prominent gallery directors who couldn’t wait to get their hands on works brought to them under decidedly shady circumstances, as well as auction-house experts and art historians so thrilled by the prospect of being in on a rare find that they vouched for the authenticity of paintings subsequently shown to be fakes.

Illusion and wish-fulfillment play a powerful role in the art market. Time and again, we see buyers taken in by a romantic tale spun around a dubious piece. Working-class Italian American Joseph Coletti was indeed a protege of John Singer Sargent, but the collection of Sargent’s paintings offered to a would-be art dealer was entirely fraudulent — as was the artist’s relationship to the alleged grandson who offered them for sale. The David Herbert Collection, supposedly belonging to a wealthy, closeted, married man whose affair with a noted art dealer gave him the inside track to buy directly from abstract expressionist painters — always in cash, which conveniently justified the absence of a paper trail — was also just a compelling fantasy. Amore amply backs up his claim that “the art of the art scam is in the backstory, not in the picture itself.”

That also explains why it takes the duped so long to enlist the services of technical art researchers, whose scientific analyses frequently prove more accurate than the eyes of experts. Those analyses are generally unambiguous and sometimes devastating: The Knoedler Gallery in New York was already shaken by revelations that it had unwittingly sold phony art when it received the news that a work it had sold as a Jackson Pollock was made with paint not commercially available until 1970, 14 years after Pollock’s death. One day later, the 165-year-old gallery went out of business.

Amore’s heroes are scientific art authorities and law enforcement officials. Among the scientists are Nicholas Eastaugh, who outed a fake German expressionist in a case involving forgeries sold for $22 million; the lawmen include FBI agents David Wilson and Jason Richards, who nailed the purveyor of phony Sargents, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Bonnie Goldblatt, a specialist in art-theft cases. Amore also praises such organizations as the International Foundation for Art Research, a nonprofit authentication service, and the Art Loss Register, a database of stolen works used to vet sales and auctions.

Valuable though their contributions are, it’s distracting when, every single time one of these experts is called in, the story stops dead while Amore details their backgrounds for several paragraphs. The author gets tangled up in his narrative threads while relating the complicated ins-and-outs of some dozen art frauds over the past three decades, often beginning a chapter with an anecdote whose relevance to the events that follow is tangential at best. Sometimes he plunges into frauds involving technical matters, probably confusing the reader, at least until she comes to Amore’s belated explanation. All this makes “The Art of the Con” a bumpier text than the best-selling “Stealing Rembrandts,” which Amore wrote with the seasoned journalist Tom Mashberg.

Nonetheless, there’s much fun to be had in following the reprehensible but undeniably juicy exploits of these rogues, one of whom passes off a Nazi grandfather as the compassionate customer of a beleaguered Jewish art dealer, another of whom persuades an unwitting trompe l’oeil artist to create an exact replica of a Picasso pastel, allegedly to assist a police investigation, then turns around and sells it for $2 million. The book would be even more fun if these crooks got jail time commensurate with their misdeeds; Amore reports but doesn’t comment on the fact that most of them received very lenient sentences, albeit coupled with requirements for financial restitution that they occasionally met before declaring bankruptcy. And although he’s commendably up to date in covering the burgeoning field of art fraud in Internet and cruise-ship auctions, here, too, he backs away from offering an opinion about what the facts suggest, other than the generic “one thing is for sure, fraud involving art is thriving.”

A stronger authorial voice and sharper editing would have improved “The Art of the Con,” but it is still a knowledgeable and enjoyable survey of art fraud in our time.


The painting is located at Saint Charbel’s Maronite Catholic Church in Punchbowl, Sydney, and it shows the Virgin Mary holding onto a young Jesus Christ as she prays.

Two videos of the Virgin Mary painting apparently murmuring along to a prayer with the church’s congregation have since been uploaded, and they have instantly led to a debate over whether they actually show the Madonna speaking. You can check out one of the clips below.

According to Yahoo, the first of these videos was originally uploaded to Facebook by Kirsten Keirouz, a young Catholic who frequently visits the church.

Keirouz has explained that she decided to record a video of the painting after a friend of hers nudged her and stated “look at the painting.”

Writing on her Facebook page, Keirouz recalled, “Once I looked up, I had no idea what they wanted me to look at and I saw her mouth moving. I then asked my friend; ‘Is it her mouth?’ She replied, ‘Yes.’ And then I got the shivers throughout my whole body. I couldn’t believe my eyes, I kept blinking in case I was seeing things.”

Kristen Keirouz’s video clearly caused quite a stupor in the local community. That’s because a fellow parishioner at the Sydney church, George Akray, then decided to see if he could capture the Virgin Mary’s mouth moving.

Speaking to the Daily Mail Australia, Akray insisted, “This is something I had seen a few times. This time I recorded it.” He also added that he often stares at the paintings on the wall while he prays, and he even declared that he’d seen the paintings talk before.

On Sunday, July 19, Akray recorded another video of the Virgin Mary’s lips moving on the painting, which he then uploaded to Facebook. “I never thought to record it until a saw a clip a few weeks ago,” Akray added. “These signs are to bring people to know God is really with us.” It has since been watched over 45,000 times.

However, naysayers insist that the lips in the painting aren’t actually moving. Instead, the movement is simply because of the camera shaking.

In fact, Reverend Father Joseph Sleiman, who officiates at the church, has now told the Express, via the Daily Telegraph Australia, that he himself can’t see what’s so special about the footage. Even though he’s watched it 20 times.

“For me, I looked at it, it is a kind of personal hallucination or imagination. He might have felt something under the emotion of prayer and looking at Mary. It’s not a professional camera, it’s not clear enough. We can’t base our faith on something not 100 percent.”


Virgin Mary Miracle: Painting Filmed Moving Lips During Prayer In Sydney Church [Video]
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