Earl Washington after Hale WoodruffEarl Marshawn E.M. Washington (b.1962),
woodcut after Hale Woodruff, a WPA artist, signed 1937.

Woodblock forgery is probably as old as woodblock printing itself, and it is still going on. On April 2, Earl M. Washington, artist, and seller of woodblock prints, received a prison sentence of more than four years for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud. His former wife, Zsanett Nagy, who assisted him, was sentenced last January for conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering.

Between 2018 and 2021, Washington and Nagy sold woodblock prints they claimed were made in the 15th and 16th centuries to buyers in France, who in turn sold them to a collector in Germany. Nagy received the payments for the prints through PayPal, moved the money to her bank account, and withdrew the cash before the buyers found out they had bought counterfeit prints created by Washington himself. The French buyers paid nearly $85,000 for the prints.

Washington also sold fraudulent prints to buyers in Pennsylvania. One bought 130 woodblocks, believing they were hundreds of years old, for a total of over $118,000. Another bought prints that Washington claimed were made in the 1920s and 1930s by his great-grandfather, E.M. Washington. Again, the prints were his own work.

Earl Washington Josephine KennedyEarl Mershawn Washington (1962- ) Josephine Baker linocut, signed and bears
the date 1927 in pencil. Although he likely attributed it to his “great-grandfather,”
this work was created sometime in the 1980-90’s.

Washington and Nagy were tried in the U.S. Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia division of the FBI’s Art Crime Team conducted the investigation with assistance from the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs, the French Ministry of Justice, and the French National Gendarmerie. Washington was ordered to pay $203,240.90 in restitution and serve 52 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. Nagy, who is Hungarian, was ordered to pay $107,159.25 in restitution and serve time plus two years of supervised release. She may also face deportation.

This isn’t the first time Washington has allegedly run such a scheme. An article published in Forbes magazine in September 2004, called “Catch Me If You Can,” tells how Washington sold woodcut prints to dealers through auction houses and on eBay, attributing them to his great-grandfather, Earl Mack Washington. Customers had begun to suspect that Washington had made the prints himself. There was no evidence other than his own claims that his great-grandfather was a printmaker or even existed. Former romantic partners alleged that Washington cut and printed the woodblocks himself or with the help of apprentices. One claimed to have bought his supplies and sold his work. Collectors suspected him of copying or counterfeiting the works of other printmakers like M.C. Escher and Rockwell Kent or forging signatures on prints he sold.

Washington’s prints still sell at galleries and auction houses, although listings make it clear the artist was born in 1962, even if the prints are dated to the 1930s. The Forbes article described his style as “reminiscent of German expressionist work, but often reflecting black American themes.” Brier Hill Gallery of Boston, Massachusetts, believes in the artistic merit of Washington’s prints, as long as you know what you’re getting and “don’t take them too seriously.”

You may also like: Famous Fakes, Finds, and Forgeries

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