An eccentric Spanish artist whose name is synonymous with the Surrealist movement, Salvador Dali (1904-1989) created more than 1,500 paintings in his lifetime. His works also include prints, drawings, sculptures, and theater sets. His popularity spawned countless forgeries; art experts say there are probably more fake artworks attributed to Dali than to any other artist in history.
A former Belgian journalist, Stan Lauryssens became an art dealer specializing in fake Salvador Dali works. He was eventually arrested and incarcerated. His experiences spawned a book, Dali and I, The Surreal Story which is being made into a movie starring Al Pacino.
Simply Charly: You were once a journalist who interviewed some well-known personalities. What made you change the direction from journalism to art dealing?
Stan Lauryssens: I was in my late twenties and fed up with freelancing and struggling through life. A journalist, if he’s honest, doesn’t make much money, and I wanted to get rich fast. Because of its international exposure, the art world is the perfect vehicle for laundering and whitewashing criminal money. Investors don’t buy paintings; they buy blue-chip “names”—Picasso, Van Gogh, Warhol, Dalí—that guarantee a return on their investment. I was a kind of modern-day Robin Hood: I took money from the rich, but instead of giving it to the poor, I kept it for myself and had a great time spending it.
SC: As an art dealer, you specialized in Dalí. What specifically attracted you to his works in the first place?
SL: Nothing. I didn’t know anything about art. I didn’t know anything about Salvador Dalí. To me, the art world was foreign territory. I only knew about greed. I tried to sell Picasso and Chagall, but investors weren’t interested. Those artists were so boring. Then I started talking about Salvador Dalí. In Rome, he gave a two-hour press conference in Latin though he didn’t speak a word of the language. He made it all up, on the spot. In Venice, Dalí transformed himself into a very tall giant on stilts. He requested the Holy Vatican to film him in the Sistine Chapel nailed to the floor, the way Christ was nailed to the cross. My wealthy investors pricked their ears. That was interesting stuff. “Now you’re talking,” they said. Once I was there, once I had their attention, selling them a “Dalí” was easy—I sold them a dream.
SC: What are your memories of Dalí the artist and Dali the man?
SL: In the early 80s, I went to Dalí’s house. He was sitting in a wheelchair, in a white robe that covered his legs. He wore white socks and sandals. His famous mustache was gray, almost white. He was balding. His stomach was swollen. His right arm shook from shoulder to wrist. A week earlier, I was in prison, charged with selling fake Dalís to the world. Now there I was, in Dalí’s own house in Spain, face to face with the man himself. I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly Salvador Dalí was my only neighbor. He looked different from the photographs I’d seen and the books I’d given to my clients, but I still considered him to be the greatest surrealist and commercial artist of all time because he’d “created” wealth and made me and others so much money.
SC: You spent time in prison for selling fake Dalís. Was this really a lucrative business and, if so, why Dalí and not any other artist? Are his works particularly easy to fake, or is there a huge demand for his works?
SL: Today, sadly enough, the integrity, honor, and trustworthiness of Salvador Dalí as the icon of the 20th-century Surrealism is being questioned in courtrooms all over the world. There was this damning story about art auctions on cruise ships that led to anger, accusations, and lawsuits: a businessman from San Diego touring the Mediterranean attended an art auction promoted onboard and bought a trilogy of pencil-signed Salvador Dalí prints valued at $35,000. The prints were purchased in international waters, beyond the three-mile radius of the United States Court jurisdiction. “The auctioneer told us Dalí prints would go up 20 percent a year,” the San Diego businessman stated. Back in California, he did some research and soon learned that a) the Dalí signature on his purchase was a forgery, and b) the resale value of the trilogy of Dalí prints was next to nothing. There’s more. On March 19, 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice released an indictment against seven U.S. and European “art dealers” and “counterfeit artwork distributors” for their alleged role in a $5 million international fraud scheme selling counterfeit Salvador Dalí fine art prints “bearing forged signatures and false numbering” between July 1999 and October 2007. The fake Dalí prints were sold primarily on eBay. One of the objects currently for sale on the site is a Salvador Dalí lithograph representing the ultra-famous “The Persistence of Memory” with a bid price of US $ 1,700,000. The image depicts soft watches in a desolate landscape and is offered for sale from Santa Monica, CA. Isn’t that strange? “The Persistence of Memory”—small oil on canvas—is the undisputed star piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. How come you and I can buy the image on eBay for almost two million dollars?
SC: You say that Dalí’s works were “a hot commodity for wealthy investors looking to launder their black market cash.” Why was Dalí a willing accomplice to this shady activity?
SL: Dalí lived expensively, like a Maharaja. He needed big sales to fund his millionaire lifestyle and pencil-signed hundreds of thousands of blank sheets of paper, like a machine cranked up all the way, one sheet every two seconds at forty dollars per signature. If he did it for an hour, Dalí was seventy-two thousand dollars richer. He needed more paintings, bigger paintings that could be sold for tenfold the price of small surrealist oil on canvas. Then disaster struck. In his later years, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease so that he couldn’t paint anymore. He hired assistants who painted his later paintings. Other studio assistants applied the famous Dalí signatures, also on the hundreds of thousands of fake Dalí prints and lithographs that, even today, are sold on eBay and elsewhere. If someone buys a Dalí print now, it’s a fake Dalí, which means Dalí himself has never seen it and probably didn’t even know it existed. Today, twenty years after the artist died, new fake Dalí lithographs are printed and signed in secret printing plants all over the world. It’s a racket, of course. I know what I’m talking about since I was part of that racket.
SC: In the book, you allege that the world’s museums are packed with fake artworks that were only signed by the artist or his representatives and sold to fund his lavish lifestyle. Do you actually have proof of that?
SL: What about Art Experts Inc., Florida, attesting on its website that all Dalí prints created in the 1970s and 1980s are considered “fakes,” while all Dalí paintings produced between 1981 and 1983 are in the hands of either Manuel Pujol Baladas or Isidro Bea, two of Dalí’s main assistants? After Dalí passed away in 1989, Isidro Bea phoned me. I met him and talked to him at length. He’d been painting stage screens for the Barcelona opera house when he met Dalí. Bea confirmed to me that it took him only a couple of days to copy every square inch of Senor Dalí’s giant Battle of Tetouan from a color photograph in Life magazine. Manuel Pujol Baladas I met on several occasions. He even paid for, participated, and exhibited at an art fair I organized in Barcelona. In Spain, Manuel was nicknamed “Young Dalí.” “How many Dalí oils on canvas did you paint?” I asked him. “Five hundred, between 1975 and 1982,” Young Dalí said. “How many watercolors on paper?” “Two thousand? Three thousand?” (It’s in my book.) “Not true, I never said that and I never did that,” Manuel Pujol Baladas commented in an open letter sent to various newspapers, magazines, and Internet sites in Spain. Not true? Manuel Pujol Baladas has a short memory. In March 1983, Rafael Cid interviewed him for the weekly Spanish Cambio 16 magazine. What did Young Dalí say back then? I translate: “I admit that I painted 430 fake Dalí paintings between 1975 and 1982 and that Dalí knew what I was doing because he paid me to do so. I was Dalí’s official forger.” A month after his confession, a Barcelona judge ordered the arrest of Young Dalí.
SC: If this contention is true, why do you think nobody else has stepped forward with the same allegations? Has there been a conspiracy in art circles to keep this kind of illicit activity hush?
SL: If you step forward, there is a price to be paid. You’re either a liar, or you shut up. Experimenting with a photomosaic technique at Bell Labs-previously United States Bell Systems and formerly known as AT&T Bell Laboratories-Professor Leon D. Harmon created large prints from highly pixelated symbols or images. To illustrate his 1973 article “The Recognition of Faces” published in Scientific American, he created a computerized block portrait of Abraham Lincoln copied from the American five-dollar bill. Dalí saw the magazine, extracted the image and used it as the basis of a large Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea or Lincoln in Dalí vision painting he was working on in his New York suite with the help of “a certain Phillips,” Dalí’s American assistant who was, in fact, Israeli. The now-famous Dalí painting nearly prompted a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Professor Harmon was paid off handsomely and chose not to sue.
SC: A movie based on your book is in the making with Al Pacino playing Dalí. Did you have a say in the choice of Pacino for the lead role, and if so, what authentic qualities do you think he will impart to his portrayal of Dalí?
SL: “We read about 1,500 scripts. Stan’s story was the best. I am convinced both title roles will attract A-list actors,” producer David Sacks told Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, the movie industry trade papers. “Stan provides many casting opportunities. Handsome, suave, 30ish leading man is a very big category in Hollywood. For the Dalí part, Al Pacino and Benicio del Toro are high on our wish-list and so are Johnny Depp, Gary Oldman, and Ian McKellen.” That was four years ago. In my book, I am a 40-year-old Belgian art dealer. In the script and the film, I’m 28, a New Yorker, I smoke like a chimney and chase every available woman-when I’m not snorting cocaine.” Only chasing women can be attributed to me.” Seven o’clock sharp. Early morning news on the radio. First item: “Oscar-winner Al Pacino will play the Salvador Dalí part in a new film based on the book ‘Dalí & I: The Surreal Story’ by Stan Lauryssens .”I choked on my coffee when I heard that. I couldn’t believe my ears. Al Pacino!”
SC: Do you think your book will tarnish Dalí’s reputation in art circles and with the public in general?
SL: Thanks to Dalí’s paintings, I made a lot of money. There was a warrant out for my arrest. I fled to Spain. An extradition request was filed through Interpol. I was arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted, and interrogated endlessly. My cellmates in prison were Russian mafia, London cockney gangsters, Americans on the run from the FBI, Colombian drug barons, and a handful of psychopathic killers. I was lucky that I got out alive. Now, thanks to my book, and thanks to the movie, I make money legally—and Dalí is still and will always be. It’s a win-win situation.