Remember a commercial for Coca Cola with the tag line: “It doesn’t matter what you do but how you do it.”?
Eric Hebborn was an art forger… but he knew how to do it.
Hebborn was born in London in 1934. He attended the Royal Academy, winning many awards for his work, plus a two-year scholarship to the British School at Rome in 1959. In Rome, he became friends with many artists and art historians, including the gay Soviet spy, Sir Anthony Blunt, who in 1960, told Hebborn that a couple of his drawings looked like the work of Nicolas Poussin, a leading painter of the classical French Baroque style.
Hebborn returned to London where he was hired by art restorer George Aczel, who instructed Hebborn not only to restore paintings, but to improve them. Hebborn went from restoring paintings to “restoring” paintings on entirely blank canvases so that they could be sold for more money.
In organizing the prints in Aczel’s gallery, Hebborn began to learn about paper and its history and uses in art. It was on some of these blank, but old, pieces of paper that he made his first forgeries.
Hebborn and his boyfriend, artist/writer Graham David Smith, frequented junk shops around London, buying up old papers. His first forgeries were pencil drawings which he attributed to Augustus John (1878-1961) and sold to several London galleries and through Christie’s auction house.
In 1963, Hebborn decided to move to Rome with Smith, where they founded a gallery together. When critics did not seem to appreciate his own paintings, Hebborn began to copy the style of masters such as: Baldassare Castiglione, Andrea Mantegna, Anthony Van Dyck, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Peter Paul Rubens, and Jan Breughel. Art experts declared these works to be both authentic and stylistically brilliant and his paintings were sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars through auction houses. Hebborn sold thousands of fake paintings and drawings.
In 1978, Konrad Oberhuber, a curator at the National Gallery in Washington DC, examined a pair of drawings he had purchased for the museum from an established and reputable dealer in London: one by Savelli Sperandio and the other by Francesco del Cossa, when he noticed that the drawings had been executed on the same kind of paper.
Oberhuber was taken aback by the similarities of the papers and alerted his colleagues in the art world. Finding another fake Cossa at the Morgan Library, that had passed inspection by three experts, Oberhuber contacted the source of all three fakes, who in turn, informed him that all three had been acquired from Hebborn.
Still, the curators waited more than a year before revealing the deception to the media, and even then, never mentioned Hebborn by name.
Hebborn continued to create his forgeries, changing his style slightly to avoid being detected. He made at least 500 drawings between 1978 and 1988. The profits from his forgeries is estimated to be more than 40 million dollars.
Hebborn finally admitted to some of the forgeries. Feeling he had done nothing wrong, he used the publicity to denigrate the art world.
In his memoir, Drawn To Trouble (1991), Hebborn continued his assault on critics and art dealers. He spoke openly about his ability to deceive art experts who were all too eager to go along for the sake of profit. Hebborn also claimed that some of the works that had been absolutely proven genuine were actually his fakes.
On January 8 1996, shortly after the publication of his book The Art Forger’s Handbook, Hebborn was found lying in a street in Rome with his head bashed in. He died three days later.
Many artworks attributed to Hebborn, including some which hang in the world’s greatest museums, continue to have their provenance debated.
A collection of 234 pieces known to by Hebborn sold at auction in 2015 for $180,000, more than five times their estimate. The collection included Hebborn’s drawing book. One of his tricks was to invent preparatory drawings of existing paintings, most famously Van Dyck’s The Crowning With Thorns, which he studied in a German museum.
Hebborn had fooled The British Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, the J. Paul Getty Museum in L.A., and the Cleveland Museum of Art. One curator remarked:
”Sometimes his work was more beautiful than the original.”
His books: Drawn To Trouble, The Art Forger’ Handbook (1997), and Confessions Of A Master Forger (1997) are still in print. The documentary film Eric Hebborn: Portrait Of A Master Forger, featuring an interview with Hebborn at his home in Italy, is streaming on the BBC archives. A novel, In the Shadow Of An Old Master (2014) by P.J. Blake, is based on Hebborn’s life and death.
Smith moved to Califonia after the Hebborn murder. He memorably appears in Bruce La Bruce’s porn flick Hustler White (1997). He now lives. He continues to write and make art.
Hebborn’s murder has never been solved.