Death of a Forger

Denis Dutton

The murder of Eric Hebborn on January 11th brought to a close one of the most illustrious careers of any twentieth-century forger. His body was found on a street in Rome, the city where he had lived since the 1970s, with his skull broken, probably by a hammer blow from behind. Only a few weeks before, he had published his second book, Il Manuale del Falsario (The Faker’s Handbook), a set of complete instructions on how to forge and market fake drawings and paintings from the European tradition.

Born to a poor Cockney family in 1934, Hebborn’s beginnings were unpromising. His mother apparently delighted in beating him, and from what he describes, he must have provided no little provocation. Eventually, Hebborn set fire to his school and spent time in a reform school. His abilities as a draughtsman were recognized and encouraged by his teachers, and though too young to join, he became a kind of mascot of the Maldon Art Club, even exhibiting at age fifteen. Finally, he made it to the Royal Academy, where he was awarded a Silver Medal and a Rome Scholarship for study in Italy.

While still a student, he went to work for a picture restorer named George Aczel. Restoration, it developed, meant much more that cleaning and retouching, and soon young Eric was painting large areas of old works, cleverly extending cracking into newly painted surfaces, and even “improving” old paintings by augmenting them. An insignificant landscape became, with the addition of a balloon in its grey sky, an important (and expensive) painting recording the early history of aviation. As Hebborn says, “a cat added to the foreground guaranteed the sale of the dullest landscape” Popular signatures came and unpopular signatures went” Poppies bloomed in dun-coloured fields.”

From Aczel’s studio, Hebborn discovered, such “improved” pictures went straight into gold frames and the plush surroundings of a dealer gallery where a sale often netted Aczel a fivefold profit. It wasn’t long before it struck Hebborn that there is no need to fuss with an old painting to produce a very valuable work of art: old paper and proper ink recipes, along with a little talent, were enough. And talent, it must be said, is something Hebborn has demonstrated in abundance. In fact, Hebborn began to produce masterpieces to take importance places in the collections of the British Museum, the Pierpont Morgan Library, the National Gallery in Washington, and innumerable important private collections. These were not trifles, but mainly Old Master drawings authenticated by noted art historians, such as Sir Anthony Blunt, and sold though Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and especially the respected London dealer Colnaghi.

By the time his career as forger concluded, Hebborn had produced by his own account approximately a thousand fake drawings, purportedly by such hands as Castiglione, Mantegna, Rubens, Breughel, Van Dyck, Boucher, Poussin, Ghisi, Tiepolo, and Piranesi. But that isn’t all: there has been sculpture, a series of “important” Augustus Johns, and works by Corot, Boldini, and even Hockney. A Renaissance bronze Narcissus was authenticated by Sir John Pope Hennessy, and a “Parri Spinelli” drawing was purchased by Denys Sutton, editor of Apollo, for £14,000.

During most of the 1970s and 80s, Hebborn lived the dolce vita in Rome, using various London dealers and galleries to dispose of his works, often at spectacular prices. His loves included a relationship with Graham that lasted for some years, until Graham became “sexually tired of me, and was constantly looking about for a change – even girls.” After that, he seems to have settled down with Edgar, and though he spent a night in Sir Anthony Blunt’s bed, nothing happened due to due to the drunken condition of both. “Brewer’s droop,” Hebborn calls it.

In 1978, Colnaghi’s realised that they had been sold some fakes by Hebborn and the temporary panic that set in depressed prices for Master Drawings. A curator had noticed that the Pierpont Morgan’s “Cossa” was on paper identical to the National Gallery’s “Sperandio.” As these drawings had both been obtained from Hebborn, doubts multiplied. His reputation was destroyed and the London market in Master Drawings temporarily crashed. Hebborn might at this point have decided to retire, or at least lie low, but instead he vowed to flood the Old Master market with five hundred more drawings, which he claims to have accomplished between 1978 and 1988. Given the quality and diversity of his known output, there is no reason to doubt this general claim.

On the other hand, he was given to spreading complex layers of lies in order further to confuse curators and the art market. For example, in his 1991 autobiography, Drawn to Trouble (also published as Master Faker), he claimed for himself several quite authentic drawings. In 1994, he said that the pigment of a Leonardo cartoon in the British National Gallery had been inadvertently destroyed and that he had redrawn the work from scratch. His former partner, Graham Smith, told the Independent’s Geraldine Norman, however, that this had never happened. Hebborn had also claimed to have painted a Rogier van der Weyden and an Annibale Carraci, both paintings having been discovered during the time of his active forgery. These “revelations” are patently untrue, Norman insists.

Hebborn was a charming rogue, highly intelligent, and an excellent writer (assuming, of course, he actually wrote his autobiography). He was imbued with an acid sense of resentment, and displayed that peculiarly British working-class impulse to wreck revenge against the lordly elite. Hebborn missed no opportunity to recount how he made a fool of some mandarin art historian, a fatuous, titled collector, or an expert in the employ of Christie’s or Sotheby’s. While many of these jabs are deserved, Hebborn’s attempts at self-justification were less successful.

In his autobiography, two of Hebborn’s themes are the venality of art dealers and the pseudo-expertise of the scholars who authenticated his fakes. Clearly, greedy dealers looked none-to-carefully at his works and sold them for vast profits. The experts whom he tricked may have looked more carefully, but Hebborn was an exceedingly clever forger. Not only was he extremely knowledgeable about materials, he possesses a remarkably adaptable mimetic ability. In this respect, his oeuvre challenges to some extent the widely-accepted belief that forgers invariably give themselves away by allowing their own personal mannerisms to infect their fakes. Hebborn displayed an astonishing ability to think himself into another artist’s style and effectively imitate it. Moreover, many of his fakes are disarming in their life and grace. They are, simply as basic visual objects, beautiful to look at.

Hebborn had no reluctance to point this out, but he was not uncritical of his own abilities. Most of his forgeries were original works in the style of other artists, but at one point he compared an early copy he made of a Corot drawing with the original in order to demonstrate how relatively inferior his fake is. His copy was too timid and deliberate, he says, and lacked “the strong sure line of Corot.” Perhaps, but his Temples of Venus and Diana, by “Breughel,” or his Christ Crowned with Thorns, by “Van Dyck,” would have done credit to their purported artists.

They are not, however, works of art in the sense Hebborn argues for at fallacious length. He quotes Gombrich that since pictures do not assert anything, they cannot be true or false. It follows, Hebborn claims, that his works cannot be false. Naturally, a drawing is a drawing. It is claiming that it is by Tiepolo or Mantegna, when it is in fact by Eric Hebborn, that is false. Pictures don’t lie: it is only the people who make and sell them, such as Hebborn, who do that.

The greatest crime Hebborn committed does not involve the misfortunes of the rich in their attempt to use Old Masters as secure investments. It is rather that there are now, thanks to him, hundreds of fake “Master Drawings” in private and public collections. Art is not just about beautiful things, it is about the visions of the world recorded in centuries past. Now the drawn record of those visions has been corrupted by the skill and subterfuge of a talented contemporary faker.

The extent to which this will subtly distort our grasp of our ancestors’ understanding of their world remains to be seen. Hebborn’s handiwork has altered our understanding of the history of graphic representation just as surely as a document forger’s skill might alter our understanding of the history of ideas. More’s the pity.

 

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