Expert Forger of German Renaissance Woodcuts Sentenced to Four Years 

April 8, 2024

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By 

Elle Yap

Earl Marshawn Washington, an art forger who scammed collectors for decades by selling woodcuts purported to be by German Renaissance artists, was sentenced to four years for fraud. 

The government sentenced the 61-year-old artist after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud. Washington was ordered to pay $203,240.90 in restitution fees, and will have a supervised release term of three years after his release. 

Washington sold woodcuts he had carved himself—an art form known as xylography—for years. He sold them by claiming they were acquired by his fake great grandfather Earl Mack Washington, and later on targeted foreign nationals for his work. 

A woodcut illustration of a teacher and their students. Photo by POP. Source: Flickr.
A woodcut illustration of a teacher and their students. Photo by POP. Source: Flickr.

His 32-year-old then-wife and Hungarian national Zsanett Nagy was also charged with wire fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering. She was sentenced to two years by the court, and ordered to pay $107,000 in restitution fees. She also might be deported back to Hungary for her crimes. 

Creating a Fake Artist

Washington was considered a skilled artist himself by many people, including the prosecutors of the case. However, he had utilized his skills to create woodcut crafts he claimed were owned by his great grandfather, little-known artist Earl Mack Washington.

Early in his career, he sold his xylography under that claim. He further claimed that his great grandfather was also acquaintances with artists such as painter Rockwell Kent and graphic artist M.C. Escher, and that he had acquired some of their works through that. He sold prints of these woodcuts online on sites like eBay with prices ranging from $20 to $350. 

A picture of M.C. Escher's  "Convex and Concave." Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões.
A picture of M.C. Escher’s “Convex and Concave.” Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões. Source: Flickr.

By 2004, the estate of M.C. Escher filed a criminal fraud complaint against him after they found Washington sold forged artwork he attributed to Escher. An ex-girlfriend of his also wrote a statement saying that Washington tried to recruit her for his scam.

Washington admitted to creating hundreds of woodblocks by that point, but continued to claim his great grandfather existed, despite art historians finding no evidence of him. He attempted to exhibit some of his grandfather’s works in the past, but was rebuffed after he was unable to produce enough evidence of their authenticity. 

Renaissance Scamming

Later on, he started selling xylography under the username “River Seine,” claiming that they were made from Renaissance-era woodblocks dating back to the 15th century. He shifted his scam towards these types of woodblocks so he could charge customers higher prices. 

He recruited his wife Nagy in the scam. Buyers would direct their cash to a bank account in Nagy’s name, who would then withdraw the money.

A person buying something online. Photo by Karolina Grabowska. Source: Pexels.
A person buying something online. Photo by Karolina Grabowska. Source: Pexels.

Washington claimed the xylography works came from woodcuts of German masters such as Hans Holbein and Albrecht Dürer, and sold the prints for thousands of dollars. He had scammed people successfully for years with these claims, including $118,810 from a physician in Pennsylvania and $85,000 from French nationals. 

He was investigated by the FBI Art Crime unit for years. Finally, he and Nagy were arrested in January 2023, for multiple fraud charges, including separate bank fraud charges for Washington. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud in July 2023 in exchange for lenient sentencing.

Washington’s work is still available for purchase online through the website Invaluable.

Related reading: Russian Billionaire Charged Double for Artwork, Accuses Sotheby’s of Fraud

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