By Jonathon Keats
In Eric Hebborn’s elaborate smoke-and-mirrors game with the art world, picture faking was only the beginning.
Early in his career as an art dealer, Eric Hebborn acquired a drawing attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder. The sketch depicted the ruined Temples of Venus and Diana on the Bay of Baia—the ancient Roman landscape lyrically rendered in flowing sepia—yet something appeared amiss to Hebborn’s exacting gaze. The lines seemed sluggish, as if the pen had been hesitant, in conflict with the impromptu composition. Reckoning that he had a period copy, perhaps drawn by a printmaker preparing an etching, Hebborn resolved to replace it with the lost original.
That wasn’t going to be easy, given that the year was 1963 and the original had probably been missing for three and a half centuries. But Hebborn had an original notion of originality. Sliding the sketch out of its old wooden frame, he taped it to a drawing board beside a sheet of blank paper from the same era, and set out to rediscover Brueghel’s lost drawing by copying the copy.
Hebborn was a fine draftsman, trained in classical techniques at the Royal Academy of Art. In fact it was this education that sensitized him to the sluggishness of lines drawn by copyists, who typically must work more slowly than the original artist—suppressing spontaneity—in order to faithfully imitate an original composition. Experience with a pen also tipped Hebborn off to another, subtler distinction: The lines in a copy are generally not drawn in the order they would be were the draftsman drawing from nature. Since the image to be copied has been fully delineated in advance, there’s no process of discovery. Embellishment can precede structure, like a tree sprouting leaves before branches.
Hebborn’s task was a kind of reverse engineering—or even method acting. He would have to deconstruct the copy by considering the purpose of each mark in terms of the problems of drawing from life, and then reconstruct the original on another sheet of paper as it would originally have been made. Loosening up with a tot of brandy, Hebborn revived momentarily Brueghel’s encounter with the Temples of Venus and Diana. Then he sealed the rediscovered Brueghel in the antique frame, flushed the etcher’s copy down the toilet, and sold his handiwork to the venerable Colnaghi Galleries on Bond Street in London.
The Temples of Venus and Diana on the Bay of Baia can now be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, albeit reattributed. The sketch is now said to have been made by Jan Brueghel the Younger.
The number of works by Eric Hebborn in public collections will never be certain. Between the early 1960s and his death in 1996, Hebborn created an estimated 1,000 drawings in the manner of various Old Masters, artfully mixed in with thousands more of legitimate origin that he handled as a dealer. Though dozens of the fakes have been detected by curators, and more were revealed by Hebborn himself in his notoriously mischievous 1991 autobiography, Drawn to Trouble, the vast majority remain in circulation under names other than his own.
The sheer variety of known Hebborn fakes has further complicated the task of finding his undisclosed forgeries. He drew convincingly as Andrea Mantegna and Nicolas Poussin, Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Peter Paul Rubens, Thomas Gainsborough and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. He could even limn the 20th century, illicitly expanding the oeuvres of Augustus John and David Hockney.
The consequences of his activities were not only economic. Though the Old Masters market stumbled after Colnaghi revealed in 1978 that they’d unwittingly bought and sold dozens of his fakes, the financial damage was fleeting, as was the crisis in confidence of collectors and curators who’d been had. His more lasting impact, probably permanent, has been to corrupt art history itself. Writing for the journal Aesthetics shortly after Hebborn’s death, the late Denis Dutton, philosophy professor and founder of the popular website Arts & Letters Daily, observed that “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.” Dutton wrote those words in condemnation; Hebborn, had he lived to read them, would have taken them as a compliment. And while Hebborn was a narcissist and braggart, he was also a bolder thinker than Dutton. Expressed through his forgeries, Hebborn’s philosophy upset the idea that history is strictly past-tense.
From the beginning, art was a form of rebellion for Eric Hebborn, his means of uncoupling the expected chain of events in a working-class Englishman’s life. He was born on March 20, 1934, into an oversized family struggling to get by on a greengrocer’s wages, first in London and then in the dreary town of Romford, where he was enrolled in the Harold Wood Junior School. There he took his first art classes, supplemented by his own experiments in making drawings with the burnt tips of spent matches. His creativity was not appreciated: Unjustly accused of arson and beaten for playing with fire, he avenged himself by committing the alleged crime, setting the school cloakroom on fire.
That stunt put him in reform school, followed by a series of foster homes in the seaside town of Maldon, where he joined a local art club under the tutelage of a landscape painter trained at the Royal College of Scotland. He learned to paint. No longer was he deemed a juvenile delinquent; the town newspaper praised him as “a keen and promising artist.”
The article also noted his admission to the Chelmsford Art School. He studied there for several years, the start of a traditional education in drawing, painting and printmaking culminating in his graduation from the Royal Academy of Art. Distinguished by the Hacker Prize and the Silver Medal in Painting, he competed for the Rome Prize, which he won in 1959. At the age of 25, the greengrocer’s son had establishment credentials that were impeccable—and that would have ensured him a sterling career a century earlier, before modernism supplanted academic acumen with avant-garde innovation.
Yet there were still precincts where the past had not been overtaken by the present. While at the Royal Academy, Hebborn discovered that his skills with pen and brush were still valued by art restorers. According to his autobiography, he worked for one in his free hours, a man named George Aczel who kept a studio in Haunch of Venison Yard. In Aczel’s shop, Hebborn was given the task of filling in gaps. Often these were areas where the canvas had been damaged beyond repair and had to be patched, in which case he might paint in a stretch of sky or a fold of flesh. Sometimes the gaps were more speculative. Customers requested that desirable signatures be found, or, more fancifully, the addition of horses and hot air balloons. As Hebborn improved at his job, adding new details that Aczel artificially aged, the gaps grew increasingly gaping until, as he dryly wrote in Drawn to Trouble, “I would one day be able to ‘restore’ a whole painting—from nothing at all.”
That day came when a dealer brought in a blank 17th-century canvas on which Hebborn was instructed to “find” a seascape by the Dutch artist Willem van de Velde the Younger. The dealer had come prepared to help Hebborn discover the desired image, showing him photographs of more easily visible van de Velde paintings, pointing out the sort of ship he expected to be found, and indicating anticipated details from rigging to sea currents. Aczel prepared the canvas. He filled in the cracked ground with a jelly that could be extracted when Hebborn’s work was complete, to instantly enhance the antique seascape with three centuries of craquelure. He also prepared period paints, thinned with benzene to accelerate drying. And to add a final touch of authenticity, he had Hebborn cover the counterfeit van de Velde signature with that of Jan Brueghel, the sort of petty fakery you might expect to find on a genuinely old painting.
What became of the van de Velde remains unknown. The dealer deliberately requested a minor work “for the small collector” in order to bypass the expertise of museums. Likely it adorns the wall of a private house, adding to the old-world ambience.
The gap Hebborn filled was the one left by van de Velde’s death. He took a commission that the 17th-century Dutchman couldn’t. In a sense, the two artists traded places. Hebborn dropped into the past to carry van de Velde into the present.
Aczel asked Hebborn to join the restoration business. Hebborn declined, and sought instead to become a professional artist. He made wood engravings and watercolors and ink drawings. Ignored by the contemporary art establishment, his landscapes and studies of the human figure were favorably received by antiquarian connoisseurs, who assumed they’d been made years before Hebborn was born. One painting was mistaken by a collector for the work of David Cox. Another was bought by an unscrupulous dealer who added the signature of Walter Sickert.
An artist more mature than Hebborn might have taken these misattributions as compliments that confirmed the refinement of his technique—or else interpreted them as a critique of his contemporary relevance. Instead. Hebborn responded with blame—experts were fools, dealers were knaves, modern art was a talentless sham—and set out to prove his case by defrauding everyone. With his lover Graham Smith, he established Pannini Galleries in London and later in Rome. Some of their merchandise was acquired in junk shops and at auction, but much of it was Hebborn’s own production.
Hebborn distinguished his operation from one blatantly out to make money by subscribing to a “moral code,” the first two points of which were: “Never sell to a person who was not a recognized expert, or acting on expert advice” and “Never make a description or attribution unless a recognized expert has been consulted; in which case the description or attribution would in reality be the expert’s.” Hebborn’s job was to create an artwork that would silently telegraph the attribution he intended. To succeed, he needed to absorb not only the nuances of how the master drew or painted, but also the intricacies of how the connoisseur reasoned.
Hebborn construed his endeavor as sort of competition against all specialists, a game he referred to as “delightful duality”, and he’d develop his strategy by outlining how he believed his opponent would authenticate the artworks if the opponent used sound reasoning. Preparing to forge a preparatory drawing for Corot’s famous Portrait of Louis Robert, for instance, he reckoned that the Colnaghi specialist he hoped to trick would be familiar with the original painting in the Louvre and a related drawing in the Fogg Art Museum, and would recognize their family resemblance to his effort while also appreciating that his sketch did not directly copy any known drawing. “It is inconceivable,” Hebborn imagined the expert thinking, “that an imitator could have so thoroughly assimilated Corot’s personal ‘handwriting’ as to draw freely in it while remaining faithful to the formal content of the picture.”
A further challenge – which in Hebborn’s case was an enticement – was that Corot had already been so often faked. According to one famous quip, attributed to the French writer René Huyghe, “Corot painted three thousand canvases, ten thousand of which have been sold in America.” In this respect, Hebborn’s case was likely helped by the want of a signature and his reticence on the matter of authorship. (He played up his ignorance, and presumptive innocence, by pretending to think the artist might be Degas.) Over the course of two weeks’ research, Hebborn relates in Drawn to Trouble, the expert convinced himself that the drawing was genuine, that Corot was the artist, and that Colnaghi should buy it. “I was banking on the man’s knowledge, intelligence, and sensibility to quality,” Hebborn reflected. “He could not possibly have known it, but he was playing a game which, ironically, he could only win by making a false move.”
Eric Hebborn occasionally alluded to a book he intended to write on the “serious grammar” of drawing. The book was to be an extension of a paper he prepared as a student, which argued that the draftsmanship of artists as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh drew on the same “universal source.” Hebborn had further advanced this idea in discussions with art historians such as his friend Sir Anthony Blunt, with whom he’d become acquainted at the Royal Academy of Art. The art historians were notably unimpressed. Their work was to make stylistic distinctions, revealing the individuating character of an artist or a period. Toward that end, even the most antiquarian amongst them implicitly accepted the avant-garde notion of progress. Though they did not necessarily equate progress with improvement, their evolutionary conception of history was distinctly modern.
Hebborn intended his grammar to reveal the universal source that art historians obscured with their spurious classifications. And when he wasn’t ranting against experts and dealers—or cheating them to fund his increasingly dolce vita—he conceived of forgery as empirical research, and considered his fakes to be experiments. “If they got through,” he argued, “then I would know for certain that my theories about drawing were right, that is, it is possible to escape the influence of period, place, and one’s own personal mannerisms, and enter mentally into the timeless world of art from which the best artists draw their inspiration.”
One of the most acclaimed of Hebborn’s escapades was a drawing attributed to Piranesi, bought by the National Gallery of Denmark, that curators only reluctantly conceded was Hebborn’s when he claimed it as his own on a BBC television program. The drawing was inspired by an engraving that Hebborn believed Piranesi had flubbed. Descriptively titled Part of a Large Magnificent Port Used by the Ancient Romans, the print seemed unusually cramped and illogical in perspective, Hebborn claimed, as if Piranesi had tried to fit his scene on too small a copper plate. As in the case of the Metropolitan’s Brueghel, Hebborn resolved to discover the original, only in this case he envisioned a grander composition than was preserved in the print. The drawing he made refracted Piranesi’s content and style through his own imagination to realize what might have been. Deceiving the experts, he not only showed his conjecture to be convincing, but also demonstrated that his 20th-century hand could draw without the least taint of his own era.
Still, it was a peculiar strategy, paradoxical in its own right, to argue that historical context was irrelevant by enticing historians to identify his fakes as authentic products of the past, ascribing to them specific names and dates. The success of Hebborn’s forgeries didn’t prove that the grammar of art is universal, but it implied that the history of art may be permeable, the cultural continuum as elastic as an accordion file. Hebborn’s deceit let him get past the professional prejudice of historians to show that an accomplished artist can compellingly engage us by taking up the stylistic concerns of any other artist or era. Art does not progress, Hebborn’s work suggested. It just grows more diverse.
On March 10, 1978, Colnaghi & Co. published a statement in the Times of London: “About eighteen months ago, it came to our attention that the authenticity of a group of Old Master drawings which were purchased by two former directors of this gallery between eight to ten years ago, from one source and over a number of years, is now doubted. The present directors of Colnaghi’s therefore decided to contact all the present owners of these drawings bought from this company and recall them for examination.” Assuring the public that purchasers had been offered a refund “in accordance with long standing custom” Colnaghi sought to impart innocence and gentlemanly comportment. Their failure to mention the source of the suspect drawings was likewise pragmatic. Though they knew the bogus drawings had come from Eric Hebborn, they could not forensically prove his fakery since his paper and ink were genuinely antique. Pure connoisseurship was unlikely to be decisive in court, and unless Colnaghi successfully pressed charges against him, their public accusation of Hebborn would expose them to a libel suit.
Hebborn never went to jail. He never stood trial. Even attempts to privately blackball him had scant effect, since he could always sell to dealers and auctioneers through intermediaries. All that the experts could do was to look out for faults in his forgeries—similarities between drawings or passages of less-than-masterly draftsmanship.
The Colnaghi debacle had been precipitated by instances of both. Konrad Oberhuber, curator of drawings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., observed what he believed to be stylistic overlaps while studying two drawings acquired from Colnaghi, one by the Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa and the other by Cossa’s near-contemporary Sperandio Savelli. He additionally deemed both drawings to be muddled in places—beneath the artists’ talent—a fault he also found with a second Cossa drawing acquired from Colnaghi by the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. The Morgan curator, Felice Stampfle, was inclined to agree. They approached Colnaghi. All three drawings were found to have Hebborn as their source. Colnaghi called in approximately a dozen more drawings sold to them by Hebborn, including works allegedly by Tiepolo, Rubens and Augustus John, which they’d placed in private and museum collections. Cast into the shadow of doubt, all began to look suspect.
Deleterious resemblances were found, including an overabundance of crosshatching and overly curly hair. More perversely, the drawings were all deemed to have a “washed out” look, as if the genuinely old paper had been artificially aged. A compendium of shortcomings came to define the forger. Some of the presumed faults were were not faults at all; some of the condemned drawings were genuine.
Hebborn delighted in the confusion—which corroborated, for him, his thesis that the experts were dunces—and yet was upset by their failure to recognize his skill as a forger. Contradictions in his character, perhaps exacerbated by the paradoxes of his work, made him increasingly ambivalent about his reputation. Visited in Rome by the Times correspondent Geraldine Norman, who hoped to elicit a confession, he played the perfect host, pouring bottles of wine late into the evening, feigning innocence. “It was clear he knew I didn’t believe him,” Norman wrote nearly two decades later in an obituary published by the Independent, “and he didn’t mind that at all.” On the other hand, when his work was not included in Fake? The Art of Deception, a landmark 1990 British Museum survey of forgery throughout history, he wrote an irate letter to the curators chiding them for omitting his work. “The British Museum need not have looked far, since there are a few of my works in its drawings collection already—notably the van Dyck Crowning With Thorns.”
One year after this incident, and likely motivated by the slight, Hebborn published Drawn to Trouble. He exposed dozens of other fakes in public collections, including the Piranesi and the Brueghel. He also named all the experts and dealers he’d duped, including numerous directors of Colnaghi and specialists at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Yet for all the damage done by the content of his book, readers were exasperated most by the style. As Holland Cotter fumed in the New York Times, “the book isn’t a ‘confession’, as the subtitle promises, but a self-vindication.”
Cotter’s description was essentially accurate. Hebborn expressed no regret, insisting he’d always been in the right, and justifying himself with reasoning as opportunistic as it was inconsistent: The experts deserved to be cheated because they were idiots, yet his forgeries were incomparably brilliant; and by the way, there’s no such thing as a fake drawing, only a false attribution. Hebborn also revealed that he’d sold 500 more forgeries since the Colnaghi affair—all of which he declined to identify—and claimed in addition to have put numerous “red herrings” on the market, self-consciously inept imitations of his earlier works designed to make experts believe they’d caught on to his personal style.
The book made him infamous, garnering him the name recognition he’d once sought for art signed E. Hebborn, if not the critical acclaim he desired. He attempted to capitalize on his celebrity, showing innocuous watercolors at London’s Julian Hartnoll Gallery. More profitably, he accepted commissions from dealers, making fakes on demand as he’d once done in Haunch of Venison Yard. The most profound effect of his book, though, was to reveal the extent of his subterfuge, the degree to which he’d inserted his work into the past.
Drawn to Trouble publicly announced that he’d sabotaged the historical record. The drawings in museums were no longer sacrosanct as historical documents, since most any of them might be modern. If they were to be appreciated, they’d have to stand on their own merits. And if a Hebborn forgery should merit museum standing, then there was one more drawing in the world for people to relish.
Eric Hebborn was killed by a hammer blow to the back of his head, inflicted on the night of January 11, 1996, in the Trastevere district of Rome. He was walking home from a bar when he was struck. The murderer was never caught, nor was the motive ever ascertained. The police scarcely bothered to investigate. As the newspaper Il Messaggero noted, “His talent and taste for fraud had made him an enfant terrible for the world of art.”
Yet Hebborn’s death did not end his assault on the history of art. Weeks before his murder, the Italian publisher Neri Pozza released Il Manuale del Falsario, which Hebborn wrote in Italian. It was translated into English and published a year later as The Art Forger’s Handbook. Providing practical guidance, from recipes for making bistre to techniques for tinting paper, the book was deemed in a review by former Met director Thomas Hoving to be “delightful and thoroughly dangerous.” At last anybody could learn to make art forensically indistinguishable from the work of previous centuries. The Art Forger’s Handbook, at least in theory, opened the temporal accordion file to everybody.
At the same time, Hebborn’s own contributions to that file were becoming increasingly uncertain. Nobody could find the preparatory drawing for Corot’s Portrait of Louis Robert that he’d described in his autobiography. Graham Smith, who split with Hebborn in 1968, claimed in Art & Auction that the Brueghel in the Metropolitan was genuine and Hebborn’s story was made up: There never was an engraver’s copy that Hebborn cribbed and flushed down the toilet. Though unprovable, Smith’s allegation was supported by Geraldine Norman, who told a New York Times reporter that Hebborn was unreliable. “When she once confronted Mr. Hebborn over his forgery claims,” the Times reported, “’He smiled across the table and said, “I like to spread a little confusion.”’” If Hebborn was lying, then The Temples of Venus and Diana on the Bay of Baia in the Met could well be by Jan Brueghel the Younger. Or Jan’s father.
Truly, Hebborn’s capacity for mayhem was boundless. Maybe there’d been no George Aczel, or there’d been several, any one of whom may or may not have had Hebborn fabricate a van de Velde. At various times, Hebborn had both claimed and denied forging paintings by Annibale Carracci and Rogier van der Weyden. During the filming of a 1991 BBC documentary, he confided off-camera to the reporter Ben Gooder that he’d redrawn Leonardo’s chalk cartoon depicting the Virgin and Child with St. Anne and John the Baptist in London’s National Gallery. He explained that the original had been irreparably damaged while he was a student at the Royal Academy, where the drawing was then stored, and that he’d been called in secretly to recreate it, in compensation for which the Academy had awarded him the Rome Prize. Gooder had dutifully spread the rumor, aided by denials from the Royal Academy, which declared itself to be “astonished that anyone could fall for such a unlikely story from someone who made a living out of being a fake.” Of course his reputation as a fraud was what gave his confabulation credibility. He didn’t need to make 500 forgeries after the Colnaghi affair; simply claiming to have done so was enough to throw art history into turmoil. In fact, faking his fakery may have been his master stroke, since no amount of sleuthing could detect forgeries that never existed.
Adapted from In Praise of the Fake, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
Free Newsletter for Collectors of Fine and Decorative Arts
Enter your email below to sign up for the Art & Antiques Magazine eNewsletter. You'll receive 2 emails per month.