Vincent Lopreto mug shot

Vincent Lopreto, 52, via Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office

Shameful though it might be to rejoice in criminal undertakings, the art forger must always command sneaking admiration.

Not only does he need technical skill, but he makes fools of the pretentious and exposes the absurdity of an overheated market.

It is thus gratifying to discover that New Orleans has been harboring a professional forger called Vincent Lopreto. He is not, alas, a particularly good one; he keeps winding up behind bars. Neither is he all that ambitious; knocking off Old Masters is not for him. Lopreto prefers to copy the works of the contemporary British artist Damien Hirst who has made a fortune with limited-edition prints of “spot paintings” — grids formed by lines of circles in various colors on a white background.

How difficult it can be to counterfeit such works is a question best left to connoisseurs of modern art. But you'd have to figure Rembrandt would be more of a challenge.

Still, Lopreto had a good racket going as he allegedly churned out counterfeits of such Hirst works as “Esculetin” on a printer that was seized from his Warehouse District apartment when he was arrested June 14. By then, according to the cops, he and two accomplices had made some $400,000 in 18 months from collectors in various countries duped by online advertisements. Telling the difference between a fake spot painting and the real McCoy cannot be easy.

But the authorities were wise to Lopreto's modus operandi long before NOPD picked him up on a Manhattan warrant. He was sentenced to five years in a California state prison in 2008 and a couple more in New York after striking a plea deal in 2013. He is presumably looking at some serious time in New York now; he did not fight extradition.

His arrest will have left collectors crestfallen all over the world, although some of them must have wondered how come Hirst prints were available on eBay at knockdown prices. Common sense, however, may be no match for cupidity. Collectors presumably figured they were making a quick buck at the expense of a naif seller.

But art is not just an investment; its aesthetic value is what matters, or ought to matter, to the collector. And if a forgery is indistinguishable from the original, it must be just as great a pleasure to behold until the truth comes out. Genuine Hirsts cannot have given their owners a more uplifting experience than the Lopreto fakes that hung on walls from Germany to Taiwan, and Macedonia to South Korea. Indeed, Lopreto's customers had the extra thrill of believing they were smart cookies.

Art forgery is now less of a challenge than back in the day, when it required an ability to reproduce the brushstrokes of genius and an ability to locate and work with the materials of a bygone era.

Successful forgers had to be artists in their own right. Take, for instance, Han van Meegeren, Dutchman who fooled all the experts and is said to have made the equivalent of $30 million dollars turning out paintings in the style of the Dutch school in the first half of the 20th century. He was charged as a collaborator after World War II for selling a Vermeer to Hermann Goering but beat the rap by revealing that he had painted the picture himself and turning out another perfect fake while the court looked on.

Lopreto is no van Meegeren, but he wouldn't need to be, since Hirst is no Vermeer. Indeed, it may be doubted that any of Hirst's productions match the artistry of a van Meegeren's forgery.

Hirst's spot paintings are not even from his own hands anyway. He concedes that his assistants put them together. He has, however, made more money than van Meegeren — he was said to be worth $215 million in 2010.

He became famous for exhibiting sheep, shark and cow carcasses preserved in formaldehyde.

Why such stunts are regarded as art is a question that only experts can answer. We philistines are left wondering just who is the biggest con man around here.

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