Drawn to forgery

ARTMARKET Eric Hebborn's fakes, which fooled many experts, were first exposed by Geraldine Norman. Now she introduces his last work, a faker's handbook
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The Independent Culture
ERIC HEBBORN, the English picture faker who died in Rome last month in mysterious circumstances - he was found lying in the street with a broken skull - has left one last timebomb ticking in the art world. It's a book that teaches other people to make fakes as well as he did. He described it to me last year as "a sort of cookbook".

So far, it has only been published in Italian. He was negotiating for an English translation just before he died. It is called Il Manuale del Falsario, "The Faker's Handbook", and we reproduce some of his cruelly percipient instructions on these pages.

Hebborn was born in London in 1934, the son of a grocer's assistant. After burning down his school at the age of eight, he was sent to Borstal and subsequently brought up by foster parents. It may have been an unpromising start, but he had a dazzling success as an art student, winning every prize that was going at the Royal Academy and finishing up with a Rome Prize for engraving in l959.

His years at the British School in Rome introduced him to the upper reaches of the art world, most notably to Anthony Blunt, then director of the Courtauld Institute and Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, later unmasked as a Soviet spy. Hebborn and Blunt became firm friends. Both were homosexuals.

But the art fashions of the Sixties left Hebborn's figurative work ignored by critics. So he found an alternative use for his talents in faking Old Master drawings. He became a dealer, but the best drawings in his stock were always his own. By the mid-Seventies, several experts were becoming suspicious and, with their help, I wrote an article un-masking his fakes in The Times in 1978.

By that time there was a Hebborn Van Dyck at the British Museum, a Piranesi at the Royal Museum, Copen-hagen, a group of Stefano della Bellas at the National Gallery of Canada and two early Italian drawings at the National Gallery, Washington, and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. For these last two drawings, he used the same paper for different artists, a slip that helped to give him away.

In 1991 he wrote an autobiography, Drawn to Trouble, a clever tease in which he listed several perfectly genuine drawings among his own fakes, thus leaving the art world in a muddle over what he'd done and what he had not. I regard his recently publicised claim to have redrawn the National Gallery's Leonardo cartoon as a post-humous tease. I've spoken to Graham Smith, an English artist who lived with Hebborn for 16 years, and he says it's nonsense. "We were living in each other's pockets at the time," he said, "and Eric couldn't have kept something like that to himself."

In the early 1990s Hebborn also took credit for the Rogier van der Weyden painting of St Ivo in the National Gallery and the Annibale Carracci Boy Drinking that the Cleveland Museum bought for $2.2m at Sotheby's in 1994 - two claims that are even more obviously untrue. Both paintings were "rediscovered" during Hebborn's active years as a faker, which must have given him the idea of claiming them.

The fascination of his "Faker's Handbook" lies in his understanding of what impresses scholars and dealers: what you need to get right in order to make them sit up and what makes a drawing sell. He also has some interesting comments on how to keep on the right side of the law. Despite his success as a faker, he was never arrested or even interrogated by the police.

Here is a Hebborn masterclass in faking Old Master drawings. In describing the faker's techniques, he speaks very much as an artist instructing artists. We offer it in the spirit of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: ie, don't try this at home, kids.

MATERIALS

Period paper is still available. You can buy indifferent old drawings quite cheaply at auctions, Hebborn says, and rub them out. Or, with luck, the draughtsman will have "modestly left the back of his bad drawing empty, awaiting an abler hand to fill in the blank". Bookshops are also a useful source: "You should frequent second-hand booksellers of all kinds, from the antiquarian of good address to the proprietor of a stall in the flea market, for it sometimes happens that they have in stock whole volumes of blank or partially blank paper in the form of unlined ledgers or account books."

Period paper, however, needs special treatment before you can draw on it. "The old glue in the sheet will have disintegrated, leaving it exactly like blotting paper; should you draw with ink upon it your lines will bleed." To prevent this you will need to size the paper: dissolve one ounce of gelatine into a quart of water, then brush on to the paper or immerse the paper in it. "Once sized, the sheets should be hung up to dry on a string with clothes pegs or some other clip, otherwise they may stick to whatever surface they have been laid on," Hebborn explains.

He discusses four types of ink and suggests modern equivalents. Ink based on carbon "was used by the Egyptians for writing and drawing on papyrus, wood, potsherds and other materials. This early writing fluid was a mixture of soot suspended in some medium such as oil, gum or glue." Chinese ink blocks, he says, are a good modern equivalent. Ink based on iron-gall, however, has to be cooked: "Leave 125g of finely powdered gall to soak for three days in two litres of rain water. Dissolve 50g of gum arabic and 50g of iron sulphate in a litre of rain water. Mix the two solutions together and leave the mixture to stand for a few days, stirring occasionally. Bring ink to the boil. Strain through fine muslin and bottle."

Bistre, which was much used in the 17th and 18th centuries, is a suspension of fine soot in rain water and gum arabic, but "an excellent surrogate is raw umber, made up as watercolour in a tube". For octopus ink you can also use the ready-made commercial water-colour - but make sure it has the traditional gum arabic base.

The inks must be applied with the right kind of pen, he points out. Up to the l9th century pens were made from goose quills or reeds. You can make your own with a sharp knife.

When colours are used it is vital to avoid the modern synthetics. Hebborn advises restricting your palette to: "1 Flake white 2 Yellow ochre 3 Red ochre 4 Raw sienna 5 Burnt sienna 6 Raw umber 7 Burnt umber 8 Terre verte 9 Genuine ultramarine 10 Ivory black".

CHOOSING AN ARTIST

Always choose an artist you admire, he advises, but avoid great names. If you work in the style of Rembrandt, Leonardo or Michelangelo, make sure that your drawing is taken to be the work of a pupil or follower.

If you have acquired a good sheet of paper of specific date and type, choose an artist who would have used such paper. "This was, for instance, the case with a Piranesi drawing of my making which entered the National Gallery of Denmark... I had bought a number of large sheets of heavy 18th- century paper from a bookseller off Tottenham Court Road in London... I had to think of an 18th-century artist who sometimes drew on a large scale."

What to draw? "A popular method used by fakers to provide a subject is to combine elements from different originals." For example, the sources of one Leonardoesque drawing by Hebborn were: an unfinished Leonardo red chalk drawing at Windsor Castle, his portrait, Lady with an Ermine, in Cracow and a study of a woman's head by Leonardo's pupil, Cesare da Sesto.

AGEING DRAWINGS

As far as possible avoid having to age your finished drawing by using old materials, Hebborn says. But if the paper is still too white, smoke it. "A fire is made of green wood and the drawing held in the dense smoke that arises from it."

When making a drawing of a specific date, you must bear in mind the sequence of technical developments that will affect your work. Hebborn provides a useful table:

Prehistory: charcoal; lamp or candle black; black, white and red chalks

Antiquity: watercolour, known to the Egyptians as a dyestuff

c100AD: the Chinese invent paper

795AD: paper mills were established in Baghdad

1270: first Italian papers

c1390: Cennino Cennini gives instructions for making a lead pencil 1400: black, white and red chalks are used extensively from the 15th century onwards

1496: the first English papers made

c1500: watercolours introduced (said to have been invented by Durer)

1586: first paper mill in Holland

c1700: pastel had a great flowering in the 18th century

1755: introduction of "wove" paper. Before this date all handmade paper was made on a laid mould

1790: modern pencil (graphite)

1831: Gillot patented an example of a steel pen nib

1880: wood fibres and starch were incorporated into paper-making

1930: introduction of the first paper made entirely from synthetic fibres.

SIGNATURES

Fake signatures are, generally speaking, to be avoided, Hebborn says. "Before the 18th century signed drawings are normally restricted to a few highly finished drawings intended to function as independent works of art." The exception is the German school. "The practice would seem to have been introduced by such engravers as Martin Schon-gauer (1435- 91), Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), and Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538)... they included their monogram to protect themselves from plagiarism."

When imitating a signature, make sure to use the same kind of pen and ink and copy it upside down. "Reading the letters tends to distract one's attention from the abstract qualities of the line itself and to avoid this distraction and to concentrate on the movements that matter it is a great help to turn the signature upside down."

SELLING DRAWINGS

Junk shops are useful for disposing of failures, Hebborn says, and suggests that you can get a reasonable price as long as you convince the shopkeeper that: the picture is original and made by hand; you inherited it from a rich aunt who said it was worth a fortune; you can't afford take it to Sotheby's.

Antique shops, he adds, are an excellent outlet for decorative imitations which would not deceive an expert. "According to an antique dealer of my acquaintance, roughly 80 per cent of antiques are today decorative fakes - just like your drawing." When approaching art dealers, on the other hand, "it is advisable to treat them as if they were scholars... The sales tactic to use is more or less identical: keep quiet and leave them to decide what you have for sale.

"Of the various ways in which we can sell our 'old' drawings, the auction house is perhaps the best... Every auction house looks after its own interest by laying down 'conditions of sale' which protect them from the fury of clients who discover that their purchase is not quite what they hoped it was... The auction house and their consignors (us) are not to be held responsible for any errors of description... Whether our earnings are large or small, the legal experts have framed auction house conditions of sale to protect us and we are not contravening the law."

THE LAW

The creation of new "old" drawings is not illegal, Hebborn points out. "The crime consists in misrepresenting their nature with the aim of selling them at prices in excess of their market value... So ask the normal prices you ask for your own work... DO NOT BE GREEDY."

If your own drawings have, at present, no established market value. Hebborn suggests that "you could calculate on the basis of the hourly charges of any trained artisan, a plumber for instance, and add the cost of your material." !

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