In Homage to Improv Everywhere: A Few Great Art Hoaxes


Yesterday Improv Everywhere staged an unauthorized signing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by an actor who looked very much like King Philip IV of Spain. The actor greeted museum visitors and signed 8 x 10 photos before a portrait of the king by Velasquez, a 400-year-old painting that had just been restored. This stunt, produced by Charlie Todd, called to mind some great art hoaxes of the not-too-distant and sometimes distant past that captured our imaginations.

Banksy Drops Stealth Art at New York Museums

In March 2005, dressed as a British pensioner in a hat and trench coat, the artist known as Banksy installed four of his own works in some of New York’s most prestigious museums — the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Natural History. The images, which included a Warhol-esque can of tomato soup and a portrait of a woman in a gas-mask, came complete with name plaques and explanations.

Modigliani’s Three Heads

Legend has it that when he was 25, Modigliani tossed a couple of his sculptures into the Fosso Mediceo, or the “Royal Canal,” because he didn’t think he was as good of a sculptor as he was a painter. In 1984, in a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Modigliani’s birth, the Livorno Museum of Contemporary Art announced a challenge to find the heads that had been thrown into the canal. Three students with Black & Decker power drills carved up a head from sandstone, and threw it into the canal. When people began looking through the water, a head was found in the style of Modigliani — but it wasn’t the one the students had made. Angelo Froglia, an artist and dockworker, claimed to have made that head in an act of conceptual art to lay bare the shoddy workings of the art world. Then, the sculpture made by the students was found and declared by historians to be authentic because it had an “inner light.” Twenty-four years later, one of the students, Michele Ghelarducci, attempting to do better this time, made another replica. He sold it on eBay in June 2008 for 403 euros.


Genpets, a multimedia installation art piece created by Adam Brandejs, features 19 humanoid creatures made of plastic and latex and outfitted with robotic circuitry to simulate slow breathing. While they were at times believed to be “real” and confused for bio-engineered pets, Brandejs claims he never aimed to fool anyone into believing as much; the piece is a commentary on corporate ethics, and more specifically a 1985 ruling by the US Patents and Trademarks Office allowing for the patent of genetically engineered plants, seeds, and plant tissue. That said, when Genpets were exhibited in a Toronto storefront, the shop owner had to sleep in his store because outraged shoppers banged on windows at night wanting to buy or wake the creatures. The installation has also been shown in galleries and museums in North America and Europe.

David Cerny’s EU Artwork

Czech artist David Cerny created this sculpture to mark the occasion of the Czech Republic’s presidency of the Council of the European Union. The artwork, an 8-ton jigsaw puzzle of sculptural representations of each of the EU’s 27 member countries, displays Bulgaria as a set of toilets, Germany as a series of highways shaped loosely like a swastika, and Britain as an empty space. Cerny was given a commission of $500,000 to complete the work, and initially the plan was to enlist artists from each of the 27 member states. However due to “time, production, and financial constraints,” that plan could not be realized. Cerny went it alone, without informing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and made up identities for the faux individual artists. And the piece, intended to mock national stereotypes, did not go over well with the member states. On his website, Cerny gives this defense: “We knew the truth would come out. But before that we wanted to find out if Europe is able to laugh at itself.”

The Poster Boy MoMA Mashup

Photo credit: Doug Jaeger

In one of its most costly advertising campaigns to date, on February 10, 2009, the Museum of Modern Art plastered images of works from its permanent collection all over the Atlantic-Pacific subway station in Brooklyn. On February 21, Poster Boy with the aid of Doug Jaeger, a marketing executive who created the campaign for MoMA, entered the subway wearing MoMA jackets and defaced the campaign. Among other things, they gave Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe a nose-job. Later the two staged a photo shoot with hired models. Jaeger told New York Magazine, “What I would hope is that it would cause debate and generate some argument, at a minimum.”

Cartrain Holds Hirst Pencils Ransom

In July 2009, 17-year-old street artist Cartrain was arrested after stealing pencils from the Pharmacy exhibit by YBA Damien Hirst. The theft was allegedly executed to get back at Hirst for seizing some collages Cartrain made based on Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull. Cartrain made a mock “wanted” poster that stated: “For the safe return of Damien Hirst’s pencils I would like my artworks back that DACS and Hirst took off me in November… Hirst has until the end of this month to resolve this or on 31 of July the pencils will be sharpened.” But valued at $500,000, the pencils — “rare” Faber Castell 1990 Mongol 482 Series — were no joke. Cartrain was arrested.

Bruce High Quality Foundation University

In September 2009, the art collective known as Bruce High Quality Foundation established an unaccredited art school in downtown Manhattan, founded in part to address the untenable $200,000-debt-model of education, which they claim pushes young artists into “critical redundancy” and “professional mediocrity.” All classes, like XXXtreme Performance Studies, Fiends de Siecle and Moss – A Musical Language, are free. Among other things, according to its website, BHQFU is “a ‘fuck you’ to the hegemony of critical solemnity and market-mediocre despair.” And while you can’t be one of the Bruces (one of BHQFU’s operating principles being “students are teachers are administrators are staff”), everyone who enrolls takes part in shaping the future of the university.

Banksy Identity Up for Auction on eBay

It seems apropos that a piece on art hoaxes should be bookended by examples connected to the street artist known as Banksy. And so it goes. On January 12, 2011, a piece of paper went up for auction on eBay that was going for over $1,000,000 by January 18, 2011. The paper purported to reveal the identity of British street artist Banksy. Bidding seemed to move steadily, then the item was mysteriously removed. There was speculation, as per usual, that Banksy himself may have been behind the auction, yet no evidence has surfaced to support that conclusion. And when within hours there were multiple auctions for the identity of Banksy, one being offered at a “fraction of the cost,” it was clear that whoever was behind the auction, Banksy or not, the joke as always was on us.