The First Family of Art Forgery

Feb 20, 2014 at 5:02 PM ET

In 2001, Belgian police called curators at one of London’s top museums and told them that two J.M.W. Turner paintings valued at $35 million had been recovered in a sting operation. Lost since 1994, the Tate Gallery scrambled to get a professional down to Antwerp to see them.

Sitting at home in Berlin a few days later, Evgeni Posin was reading an article in the newspaper about two men arrested for trying to pass off the Turners as original. He knew immediately the paintings were fakes. How? Because he and his two brothers had painted them.

The Manning brothers play quarterback. The Jonas brothers do boy-band music. And the Posin brothers make art fakes. For decades, Evgeni, 66, Michail, 65, and Semyon, 69, have painted near-perfect copies of the world’s masterworks, with all three of the brothers typically painting different sections of each canvas.

But unlike most forgers, they’re not trying to dupe the art world. Their buyers know exactly what they’re getting for the thousands of euros they shell out for a Posin painting. Many of the customers are collectors, often millionaires, who own an original but want to keep it hidden away. One fan, Gerold Schellstaeder, has bought more than a 100 of the Posins’ paintings—he has even set up a museum for their work in northern Germany. The brothers even have a Hollywood following: Four of their most recent Gustav Klimt copies turned up in Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

All three brothers live in the Neukölln neighborhood of Berlin, where each has his own apartment and studio, along with an old storefront converted into what is called the Posin Art Salon, crammed to the brim with fabulous fakes. Walk in and you’ll see the Mona Lisa on an easel and a Van Gogh lying sideways on the floor.

Christoph Stoelzl, a German art critic, told Deutsche Welle that works painted by the brothers could easily pass as originals. But the brothers aren’t interested in the intricacies of a true forgery and leave plenty of clues for the expert.

“You can see it immediately,” says Evgeni. “All you need to do is look on the back.”

Other clues are in the makeup of the painting. Copies, for example, have to be painted on a slightly different sized canvas than the original to be legal, and the brothers use some newer materials, like paints and canvas. The clues aren’t so much on purpose as much as just obvious to someone looking for a forgery.

The brothers are obsessed with detail. For them, copying the great masters is akin to the best method acting. They didn’t cut their ears off while painting a copy of Van Gogh, but they did read diaries, study the time period and try to put themselves in his head. If an original painting took two hours to paint, then they take two hours. And if it took three months to make the masterpiece, then they paint for three months, too. Their attention to detail has led to some lucrative offers. Evgeni says that though they were once offered $9.6 million to forge a Picasso, but turned it down.

“We will not put our heads on the guillotine,” he says, “because people get caught eventually.” Asked if some of their customers pass off the works as originals, Evgeni says he doesn’t know—and doesn’t want to know. “If you sell a knife you don’t know if someone will kill with it.”

The brothers grew up in Russia and studied at the Leningrad Arts Academy, where the curriculum was all about copying the great masters. As they started in their early careers, authorities wanted them to make Communist-style paintings.

“We didn’t do what we were supposed to do at the time in Russia,” Evgeni says. He left first, traveled around Europe and ended up in Berlin. His brothers soon followed, and they have been here since. The three have an unusual relationship and with the larger paintings: They all paint together, adding parts at will.

The art of reproducing masters, and even adding a bit sometimes, gets overlooked in the rush to find new forms of self-expression. And though much of the art world frowns on copying, art critic Blake Gopnik pointed out in a New York Times article entitled “In Praise of Art Forgeries” that “if a fake is good enough to fool experts, then it’s good enough to give the rest of us pleasure, even insight.”

The brothers also create their own original works—one massive painting by Evgeni even earned the brothers an audience with the pope back in 2004—but much of their focus remains on the classics, in part because copies can be made of only paintings that are more than 70 years old. (Copyright law expires after 70 years, so copying older stuff is legal but newer stuff would require owning rights to the piece to do a reproduction.)

Then there are some paintings that the brothers say they won’t ever sell. Why? “It’s just intuition,” says Evgeni. “There are paintings we want to have and we want to keep.”

Additional reporting and translating by Svetlana Stepanova.