Shelf Life

Artist, forger and all-round rascal Eric Hebborn spilled the beans on his nefarious trade in his final book, published in Italian just before his mysterious death in Rome last year. The Art Forger's Handbook (Cassell pounds 20), part cook-book, part art-historical treatise, is a typically teasing and disingenuous affair.

In 1980 Geraldine Norman outed Hebborn's "Old Master" drawings, which had been accepted as original works by Corot, Piranesi, Breughel and others. (Below, two treatments of Nessus Seizing Deianeira: the top one is by Tiepolo, the bottom one is Hebborn "in the style of".) Reading this book makes it clear that to become a successful "late follower of the Old Masters" takes a great deal of skill, diligence and ingenuity.

First, learn about antique paper and assemble a collection by haunting salerooms, print dealers and antiquarian book-sellers. An indifferent print on thick paper can be "split", thus giving you one large sheet plus the original, undamaged print which can then be resold. Paper can always be roughened, smoothed, smoked, tinted, aged, cleaned or dirtied ("Olive oil may sometimes be the cause of interesting stains"). Next, learn about inks, quills and pens. Who to copy? Hebborn advises the tyro not to aim at the master directly but at one of his followers. "The great artists ... set levels of attainment far beyond our humble talents." After selecting a minor artist who studied under or copied your favourite master, you just have to select saleable subject matter, and you're away.

Hebborn pours scorn on art history as a selective, blinkered narrative told by eccentrics each riding their own hobby-horse. Even truth can be dispensed with, according to Herodotus: "Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these things." Hebborn praises the "saintliness" of scholars, and then advises, in the most indirect way possible, how best to deceive them. "The first rule to be followed when offering works for a learned opinion is to keep quiet ... should they say your work is genuine then, at least for the time being, genuine it is."

The forger is not responsible for the greed or gullibility of those who are secretly hoping that they have cheated you. Hebborn points out that it is not illegal to make a fake drawing or painting. The law takes an interest only when the fake is used to obtain a sum of money grossly in excess of its value. "Above all ask a fair price for [your] handiwork ... DO NOT BE GREEDY," he cautions.

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