“Only the experts are worth fooling. The greater the expert, the greater the satisfaction in deceiving him.”
—Eric Hebborn, 1991
Eric Hebborn’s training at the Royal Academy of Arts—Britain’s most prestigious art school—as well as his award of the Rome Prize, could have heralded an illustrious artistic and academic career. Instead, as his exquisite drawing skills were belittled by the mid-20th century art market, Hebborn became profoundly critical of the prevailing style of modernism and contemptuous of art dealers and experts. Like other forgers, Hebborn found his talents better suited to creating works from a bygone era; in his case the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Hebborn came to blur the moral lines between producing, enhancing and restoring art. His training as a painting restorer taught him to repair damaged works, but also to enhance them and, at times, simply forge them. When he realized how easily the experts were fooled, his contempt for them increased. Ultimately, he came to justify his forgeries as ethical if he sold them to experts and dealers, who should be able to discern the authentic from the fake. He never sold his forgeries to amateur collectors, as a stipulation of his own moral code.
Right: Eric Hebborn in his studio. Photo by Raimondo Luciani, 1991.
|1934||Born in South Kensington, England.|
|1942||At age 8, sets fire to his school and sent to a juvenile rehabilitation center where he learns he has artistic talent.|
|1949||Lives with a foster family in Maldon, England. At 15, after his first exhibition, becomes the youngest member of the Maldon Art Club and wins a placement at Chelmsford Art School.|
|1952-1956||Moves to Walthamstow Art School in London. Discovers talent for copying while duplicating master drawings for his thesis. Meets Graham Smith, his romantic partner for 14 years.|
|1956||Enters the Royal Academy of Arts, London, supporting himself by teaching anatomical drawing. Develops disdain for modernism when his work is criticized for being old-fashioned and unoriginal.|
|1957||Begins working as a picture restorer.|
|1959||Wins a Silver Medal for painting and receives the Rome Prize for engraving. The prize allows him to live at the British Academy in Rome for two years.|
|1960||Meets Sir Anthony Blunt, a famous art historian who tells him that his drawings resemble those of Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). Hebborn says this inspired his forgery career.|
|1961||Returns to London and hired by art restorer George Aczel, who teaches him how to enhance paintings and add dubious signatures. Becomes director of engraving at Reigate and Redhill School of Arts and Crafts, teaches anatomy and life drawing.|
|1961-1963||Creates his first forgeries: pencil drawings by Augustus John and Andrea Schiavone. His partner, Smith, sells several of these drawings to their landlord to cover rent as well as to Bond Street galleries.|
|1963||Establishes the Pannini Galleries in London. Christopher White, a drawing expert for P & D Colnaghi and Co., London’s oldest art dealer, buys several of his forgeries.|
|1964||Relocates the Pannini Galleries to Rome, exhibiting authentic works along with his forgeries. Repertoire expands to include Bruegel, Castiglione, Corot, Mantegna, Piranesi, Rubens, Tiepolo, and Van Dyck. He also begins casting bronzes under his own name.|
|1965||Sells a forged Bruegel drawing to Colnaghi, which ends up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Authors a book, Lottatori Americani, with 24 original etchings on the theme of American culture.|
|1978||Curators from prominent US museums notice drawings from their collections are on the same paper. All are traced back to Colnaghi, who reveals that Hebborn was the source of the drawings.|
|1978-1991||Media and art market alerted about the forgeries, but Hebborn is not mentioned by name. Never charged with forgery in the UK or Italy. In 1991, the BBC produces a documentary, Portrait of a Master Forger.|
|1993||Writes a memoir, Drawn to Trouble, claiming he forged 500 drawings attributed to Old Masters between 1978 and 1988.|
|1996||Publishes The Art Forger’s Handbook, and shortly thereafter, is murdered on the street in Rome. The murder remains unsolved.|
“Faking his fakery might have been his master stroke, since no amount of sleuthing could detect forgeries that never existed.”
—Jonathan Keats, author of Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of our Age
The number of works by Hebborn in public collections is unknown. He claimed he created between 500 to 1,000 drawings in the styles of dozens of Old Masters, interspersing them with the thousands of legitimate works he handled as a dealer. In the 1991 BBC documentary, Portrait of a Master Forger, as well as in his autobiography, Confessions of a Master Forger, Hebborn also asserted he created specific works in prominent collections which were later determined to be, in fact, authentic—causing even more confusion in the art world.
To protect himself legally, Hebborn refused to give attributions for the works he sold. Yet he confessed to his misdeeds in two bold autobiographies and on multiple television appearances. Incredibly, authorities never prosecuted him for fraud, claiming lack of evidence. A few weeks after the publication of his second book, The Art Forger’s Handbook, Hebborn was found lying on the street in Trastevere, Rome, with a traumatic bludgeon wound to the head. He died in the hospital shortly thereafter and his murder has never been solved.
1991, 44 seconds
In this excerpt from Eric Hebborn: Portrait of a Master Forger presented on Omnibus, an arts-based BBC television documentary series, Hebborn demonstrates his drawing technique in the style of an Old Master. He is seen trying to excuse his behavior, blaming the art market and its experts for his successful forgery career.
The true genius behind Hebborn’s forgeries lay in his excellent drafting skills—which easily bypassed experts’ traditional connoisseurship techniques—and his knowledge of historic paper. After discovering a cache of pre-mechanical production paper in a London antiques shop, he had the raw material for his forgeries. He then researched noted artists whose dates of production fit the age of the paper. He created recipes for various pigments that mimicked the look of age. Using period application methods involving oak gall (an ink made from vegetable sources), combined with his vintage paper, his forgeries became virtually undetectable through forensic analysis.
Ironically, Hebborn’s genius was also his undoing. It was his period papers that ultimately led to his exposure. In 1978, a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, noticed that two of the gallery’s drawings by two different artists were on identical paper. When he alerted colleagues, another drawing on the same type of paper surfaced at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. After all three were traced back to P & D Colnaghi and Company, a prestigious London art dealer, the common source was revealed to be Hebborn.
An art dealer in Rome who purchased several Old Master drawings at auction began to suspect their authenticity. When he took the drawings out of their frames and held them together, they looked like they had been executed on different sections of the same old paper—the striations, or chain marks, lined up and ran evenly through both drawings (Fig. 1). Since the drawings were supposed to be by artists hundreds of miles and a century apart, it would have been impossible for both artists to have the same paper. Close analysis also showed the collector stamps, normally valued as proof of provenance and authenticity, were actually hand drawn in colored ink (Fig. 2).
Such tricks, particularly the use of antique paper, were characteristic of Hebborn. Experts familiar with his work believe these Old Master forgeries are by Hebborn though he never admitted to creating these particular drawings in his lifetime.