Eric Hebborn, Exemplary Forger

ERIC HEBBORN CAME TO A HARD END, his skull mysteriously smashed in on a Roman alley in 1996. Quite possibly the world’s greatest art forger, he was the hand behind innumerable works once attributed to artists as varied as Brueghel, Piranesi, Pontormo, Corot and Augustus John, among others.

Born in London,  he studied at The Royal Academy, winning every major prize available, including the Royal Academy Silver Prize, the Hacker Portrait Prize and the enviable Rome Prize. In short, he knew his stuff. Unappreciated as a contemporary artist, he began working for an art restorer, graduating from restoring actual works to restoring ones that never existed. There followed a near-twenty-year run of producing and marketing gracefully aged works that, in addition to being beautiful, showed signs of having been through the hands of former collectors who presumably protected them from fire and flood.

Miraculously, Hebborn was never arrested, never indicted or even interrogated when the forgeries came to light in 1980.
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While New York’s own Lawrence Salander, recently sentenced to 6 to 18 years in state prison, defrauded only his clients, Hebborn stood to collapse the entire Old Master market if he flooded it with his own work. Just the threat of doing so was enough to keep some dealers and collectors from bringing charges. Others were inhibited from pursing him because it would have meant owning up to false attributions on sales already made, and purchases hanging proudly on living room walls in the high rent district.

Most likely, it was one of the many aggrieved gulls who caught up with him one night in Rome.
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But not before he published a two marvelous books: Drawn to Trouble: The Forging of an Artist, his autobiography, and The Art Forger’s Handbook. It is the second, the handbook, that is particularly useful to artists. Livelier to read than Max Doerner’s standard text, it belongs in every young artist’s library. No, not to make forgers out of them. Not that. But simply—and crucially—to underscore regard for craft, for method and materials.

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Looking at art through the eyes of a master forger is a great romp. Encyclopedic knowledge of supports, grounds, pigments, binding media, techniques for pouncing, squaring, underdrawing—you name it— comes with chatty, practical tips and warnings. A discussion of genuine ultramarine (lapis lazuli) includes this:

Oddly enough, it is the best cobalt, not ultramarine, that comes closest to the real thing in appearance. You must, however, be sure to buy only the very best-quality cobalt. The inferior varieties are treacherous in mixtures. A simple test of quality is to mix a little of the blue with burnt sienna and white; if the result is greenish, it is not suitable. . . . The good-quality cobalt, which turns the mixture with burnt sienna and white toward the mauve side, usually costs little more than the inferior variety, but the slight difference in price does not reflect the vast difference in quality.

In these nonjudgmental, self-expressive times, his comment on drawing is refreshing:

We must study the best examples of drawing available if we are to have standards by which to judge our own efforts.

He continues:

In actual practice, however, these great artists [e.g. Brueghel, Holbein, Rembrandt] are quite unsuitable for the faker’s purposes. In the first place, they set levels of attainment far beyond our humble talents.. . . So, if you really want to draw in the style of a great master, after having studied his finest drawings, take a look at those of his students and followers, to which you yourself rightly belong.

A delicious bit of advice—part tongue-in-cheek, part cautionary, and wholly aimed at instilling a certain modesty before the greatest of our forefathers. In detecting a forgery, he advises readers to “seek the hesitant line of the copyist, as opposed to the strong, sure line of Corot.” Sounds so very like the old injunction: “Draw firm, and be jolly.”

His advice to the would-be forger is useful to honest folk in gaining greater understanding of what to look for in gauging authenticity. You have to take his advice and turn it around, more or less. His section on old vs. modern mounts for drawing, for example, is first-rate tutorial:

Mounts can often tell us much about a drawing’s history and sometimes even about the correctness or otherwise of an attribution. Because old drawings are nowadays removed from their original mounts, a number of empty ones do turn up and are very worth while collecting. . . .

Old drawings are frequently remounted, so there is no reason why you should not put your new ‘Old Master’ in a totally modern mount. . . . Make sure to use tasteful colours in keeping with the mellowness of age. Following the styles adopted by a good museum might save some some institution the trouble of changing the mount in the event of buying the work. But be careful to change your style of mounting constantly; otherwise, you might just as well sign your work with your own name.

A good bit of wicked humor there, all to give a raspberry to connoisseurs and the snobberies of officialdom!

The Art Forger’s Handbook does it make it onto art students’ reading lists. The professoriate concerns itself with higher things. But for lively advice and technical savvy, it really cannot be beat.

N.B. Denis Dutton wrote a useful discussion of Hebborn, in the context of the history of forgery and plagiarism, for the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics back in 1998. It is reprinted on his website, here.

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© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey