Profile: Earl Marshawn Washington (1962-)

Earl Marshawn Washington is an American entrepreneur, printmaker, and  engraver.

Activities

Beginning in 1998, woodcut prints from Washington began appearing on eBay and elsewhere; Washington claiming variously that the woodcuts were originals by famous artists, that they had been made by a great-grandfather whom he identified as named “Earl Mack Washington” and as having lived from 1862 until 1952, or that this alleged great-grandfather had rescued the associated blocks from a fire-bombed Manhattan print shop in the 1880s. E.M. Washington is an African American artist and reported his great-grandfather as such, which led to increased interest in the work. It was estimated by September 2004 that as many as 60,000 prints had been sold, at prices ranging from $20 to a $350. (Washington himself has since admitted to “creating over 1700 wood engravings”.)

Discovery

In 1999, not long after Washington’s work began being sold, a Canadian collector and lawyer, Kenneth Martens, found that Washington had counterfeited work by Eric Gill. Unable to get eBay or other authorities to act, Martens created a website, “Washington Unmasked”, which began assembling and presenting evidence that Washington’s work was counterfeit.  The M.C. Escher Co. found that Washington was forging the work of M. C. Escher, pressed eBay into promising that it would forbid listing of these, and filed a complaint of criminal fraud in California, as prints were being handled there by stripper Stacy Ortiz (who would later become Washington’s wife). Another collector was unable to find any census record for Earl Mack Washington; others failed to find corresponding Social Security records, or evidence in the records of artists with whom Earl Mack Washington had supposedly associated. An expert in art deco identified one of the images, duplicating work by Rockwell Kent, as necessarily dated more than twenty years after the supposed death of the supposed Earl Mack Washington.

A special exhibition of the work, scheduled for October 2004 at the Mid America Council Conference in Lincoln, Nebraska, was cancelled by the Amity Art Foundation after Washington both failed to produce proof that the work was other than his own and was discovered using advertisement for the exhibition to persuade others of the legitimacy of the work.

A criminal complaint was filed in Kalamazoo County, Michigan, by the owners of Prairie Home Antiques, who had purchased 82 prints from Washington for $1,640 on 17 June 2004.

One of Washington’s former girlfriends, hairdresser Terra Zavala, provided Martens with a signed statement that she had witnessed Washington creating some of the woodcuts, and that Earl Marshawn Washington had admitted to her not knowing even the name of his great-grandfather.

By 2004, Washington admitted to creating some of the images, but insisted that he had not invented Earl Mack Washington. Some of Washington’s more recent listings on eBay, however, declareAfrican American Artist Earl M. Washington gained worldwide recognition as a wood engraver by faking his death and creating over 1700 wood engravings and offering them to the art buying public at extremely affordable prices.

Virtually all of the images appear to be copies of the work of other artists, available from books or other reprints, traced onto blocks. Some images have no significant modifications; in other cases the modifications result in absurdities, such as incongruous reflections and German words turned into nonsense. Many of Washington’s M.C. Escher forgeries are strikingly similar to the originals but are the wrong size. These include the works Lute, Man with Cuboid, Six Birds, Thirteen Flying Fish, Letter H, Letter A, Spherical Self Portrait, Retreat, Candle, Frog, Dice, Scales, Anvil, Watering Can, Devil Vignette, and Fish and Frogs. 

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