We all love heist movies -- watching groups of expert criminals plan for weeks to pull off a massive score that mainly relies on no one sneezing at a crucial moment. With great risk comes great reward, right? Now imagine if someone planned out the equivalent of Ocean's Eleven merely to steal a paper crown from Burger King. It would be a lot like these criminals, who went to a lot of trouble for payoffs that wouldn't impress someone robbing a lemonade stand.
Being an art thief is the classiest of all criminal careers. You get to wear turtlenecks and spend a lot of time in museums, and the police refer to you by some cool nickname like "The Falcon." But what if all those moonlight trips to art galleries start rubbing off on you? Then you become like Stephane Breitwieser, a French thief who let his love for art get in the way of making any money.
One of the world's most prolific art thieves, Breitwieser stole more than 200 pieces over six years, with a total value of over $1.4 billion, which is like stealing ten Iron Man suits, or Warren Buffett's wallet. With the help of his girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklauss, he would simply stroll into museums, cut paintings out of their frames, roll them up under his coat, and walk on out like there wasn't suddenly an empty frame behind him. Then, with millions of dollars' worth of squiggles tucked in his pants, he would transport them to his underground lair and sell them to his vast network of underground contacts. Just kidding! He kept them in his mom's house to look at, like they were his childhood posters of the Wu-Tang Clan.
In November 2001, Breitwieser was finally busted while trying to steal a bugle from a museum in Switzerland. He would later confess to all of his thefts, giving a detailed list of everything. His mom, however, had other plans. When she heard of his arrest, she tried destroying every last bit of art, shredding and throwing away some of it, while tossing much of it into the Rhine River, because the garbage was full, the river was there, and iconoclasm means never having to worry about etiquette. 110 of the pieces were eventually recovered, while 60 still remain unaccounted for, though they're probably recycled toilet paper by now. Breitwieser, his girlfriend, and his mother all served remarkably short prison sentences and are already free again, though probably banned from every museum, antique store, and retro diner in the world.
Counterfeit money has been a serious problem ever since the invention of currency. After all, there's no better license to print money than literally printing money. This is why the arduous task of stopping counterfeiters is handled in the U.S. by the Secret Service, the world's toughest babysitters. And in 1938, this group had its hands full chasing down the same counterfeiter for ten whole years. This was a dastardly, Machiavellian villain who was plaguing the land with ... handfuls of crude $1 bills.
20th Century Fox
When we say "handfuls," we mean it. Mr. 880, named after his case number, only ever put about a dozen $1 bills into circulation per week. This made him much harder to catch than normal counterfeiters, who tend to make it fake rain all over the place, increasing the odds that someone will remember their face. And since nobody expects someone would waste their time forging $1, nobody noticed that their crisp new dollar bill was made of cheap paper, riddled with ink blotches, and misspelled our first president's name as "George Wahsington" until they tried to take it to the bank.
And the counterfeiter would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids. When a fire started in his apartment building, firefighters threw a bunch of his forging equipment into the lot below, where it was discovered by some children and reported to the authorities. Mr. 880 was revealed to be Edward Mueller, aged 73, and he had been making fake bills to make ends meet for himself and his dog. That was also why he never used bills in the same place twice. Instead of some clever strategy, he was trying not to make others suffer too much from his crimes. The feds weren't chasing after a lazy master criminal; just some old man trying to buy kibble for his dog.
Mueller was ultimately found guilty of being the Mr. Magoo of counterfeiting and served four months in jail, in addition to being fined one real dollar. Fox ended up making his story into a movie, appropriately called Mister 880, and Mueller ended up making more money off that film than he ever had as a counterfeiter. So the lesson here is if that crime does indeed pay, as long as your crime has box office value and a lovable dog involved.
Sure, stealing art is a way to make lots of money, but you're always in danger of being nabbed by gendarmes, and the grappling hook budget overhead is ridiculous. Forging art, however, is like painting your own money. Mark Landis is one of the art world's most prolific forgers, able to create paintings and even historical letters that avoided detection by museums all around. And with his impeccable skills, he had amassed a fortune of zero dollars -- because he gave away all his forgeries for free.
Obada Mercedes Benz
Landis wasn't like a typical forger. He didn't consider himself better than the greats, he wasn't trying to show up the art world, and he definitely wasn't trying to get rich. As far as people could tell, he just really loved to forge paintings, like a high-stakes version of tracing. Landis always wanted to be a philanthropist, and with that dream, he wanted to spread his dubious gift as far as possible. Dressed as a priest, he toured America with his forgeries, and gave his works away to over 50 museums in 20 states. How did he avoid getting caught for over 20 years? He only imitated lesser-known artists, since experts are less familiar with their work. Plus, museums tend not to look a donated horse in the mouth. After all, if it turns out to be fake, the only thing they lose is their pride. And their reputation. And possibly ticket sales. Come to think of it, maybe they should be hiring more experts.
Stanislas Lepine, Mark Landis
In fact, the only reason Landis even got caught is that he enjoyed spreading his art a bit too much. Eventually, one of his beneficiary museums discovered that there were eight copies of their donation being displayed in other museums -- the fine arts equivalent of arriving at a party wearing the same droopy clock motif dress. When Landis was finally caught, however, nothing happened. He had never sold any of his forgeries, or even gotten tax write-offs for them, so the police couldn't actually find a crime to charge him with. On its own, lying to a museum isn't a crime, besides the moral crime of hurting an institution's feelings. To this day, Landis still paints, though now as a known and notorious trickster. As long as his Wikipedia page says he's an artist and philanthropist, though, he doesn't care.
In the mid-2000s, the historian community had the biggest shock about World War II since it was discovered that Benito Mussolini was really three badgers in a trench coat. In a series of books, historian Martin Allen revealed he had uncovered amazing new historical documents linking Great Britain and Nazi Germany in quite a few embarrassing ways. People were stunned, and Allen enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame ... until someone decided to look at his sources, which were quickly proved to be fake.
Some of Allen's most salacious findings were "proof" of collaboration between British royalty and the Nazis, and that Heinrich Himmler (head of the SS) had secretly been murdered by the United Kingdom as part of a cover-up. Feeling such dire revelations deserved a bit of a look-in, British journalist Ben Fenton decided to check Allen's sources in 2005, after his third book had been published. It quickly became clear to Fenton that the documents were either hilariously bad fakes or written by time-traveling idiots. Signatures were clearly forged, letterheads were made with a laser printer, and no British intelligence agent would ever put in writing "BY THE WAY, WE TOTES KILLED HIMMLER LOL."
When confronted with hard evidence that he had been using forged documents, Allen repentantly confessed to the whole ruse, and agreed to donate whatever proceeds he made from his books to charity. Wait, no, he did the opposite of that. Allen doubled down, claiming that his totally real documents had been replaced by obvious fakes by someone trying to sabotage his reputation. Because if you're already crazy enough to rewrite world history, why not do it to your own life as well?
Ultimately, no charges were brought against Allen, as his health was in poor shape at the time and the police figured that he'd be in a small confined space without sunlight pretty quickly anyway. Also, nobody was too sure what Allen's endgame was supposed to be. There's not exactly a lot of money to be made in the historical essay game. If you're going to forge something, at least make it about Lady Gaga so you can maybe get a job at TMZ.
In 2002, 30 reality show hopefuls angled for a spot on a mysterious, year-long show with a prize of 100,000 pounds for whoever managed to come out on top. But when they showed up in London, they were given only one task: Make enough money to fund a reality show -- please?
20th Century Fox
On the supposed launch day, the dream quickly fell apart. The "contestants" were put into three teams and given their first and only assignment: They had to go out and earn a million pounds. A tricky feat, considering their promised housing, food, and allowances were nowhere to be found. When they tried to call the show's dashing producer, Nikita Russian, no one answered. It also didn't take long for the contestants with basic math skills to figure out that at 10 winners with 100 grand apiece, they were just earning their own prize -- which is what some people would call "a job." Also, no mention was made of what would happen with the vast sums of money the losing teams had accrued, except that they had to be deposited in a bank account of Nick Russian's choosing. Smooth.
By the time the participants realized they had been duped, most of them had already paid a different price. This wasn't some appearance on Jeopardy; it was the promise of a year-long adventure away from their regular lives. Several people literally had no homes to go back to, and many more had quit jobs, ended relationships, and/or moved far away just for the chance to be swindled by Russian. At this point, you might be asking yourself who would be stupid enough to halt their lives for a sketchy promise made by some dude in a leather jacket, but Russian went all-out in making this look legit (except for when he chose that name). The contestants had participated in several auditions and "psychological tests" in a suite on a private island, signed contracts with plenty of promises, the works. Many of them also admitted to have been convinced by his good looks, which we find interesting, because Russian at the time looked like a coked-out rich kid.
But it was all a lie. The private island wasn't paid for, the camera crew were film students, and Russian's "personal assistant" turned out to be his mom. Nik Russian (his legal name, but only because he had it changed from Jack Lister, which he had changed from Keith Anthony Gillard) was nothing but a bored kid who wanted to fund a TV career without paying his dues. Once he realized that his money-making scheme had not come to fruition, Russian appeared on the doorstep of one of the team's pads, confessing to his grand lie. The team, moved by his honesty, locked him in the house and called the news. Unfortunately, Russian managed to get away, the film crews left, and the contestants discovered that since they had never technically given money to Silly McNameson, there was no chance of filing a criminal suit against him. It was the perfect crime: being too stupid and incompetent to truly do anything illegal.
The participants/suckers did eventually receive some closure. The whole incident was turned into a documentary called The Great Reality TV Swindle. And while they couldn't all get back the houses they had sold or the significant others they had broken up with, they can at least say they got to know someone named Nikita Russian, which is more than we can say about our own accomplishments.
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