Italian police have launched an investigation into the mysterious death of Eric Hebborn, the English art forger, whose work made fools out of dozens of eminent experts and world-ranking galleries in the Sixties and Seventies.
Hebborn, who was 61, was found lying on the ground with a fractured skull in the early hours of Wednesday morning, following an evening spent drinking with friends near his home in the Trastevere district of central Rome.
Despite attempts by doctors to resuscitate him at a number of hospitals, he was reported to have eventually died from internal bleeding on Thursday morning.
The police said yesterday that they were not yet sure whether Hebborn had fallen by himself or if he had been attacked. They were waiting for the results of a post-mortem examination before deciding whether to open a murder inquiry.
Hebborn had lived in Italy for more than 30 years, dividing his time between a loft apartment in Trastevere and a well- appointed country house in Anticoli Corrado, not far from Rome. Having trained as a painter and art restorer, his speciality was either copying or emulating such greats as Piranesi, Picasso, Gainsborough and Van Dyck.
So accomplished did he become that hundreds of his works made their way into public galleries and private art collections as supposed Old Masters, often fooling world experts on particular painters along the way. He claimed that his work had made it into the British Museum, in London, the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the National Gallery, in Washington.
Even after he was unmasked in 1979, Hebborn continued to work lucratively, and also wrote an autobiography, Drawn to Trouble: Confessions of a Master Forger, along the way.
"Sometimes his work was more beautiful than the original," said Roberto Conforti, head of the Italian police division responsible for the country's artistic heritage and an unabashed fan. "He never gave us any trouble. He used to say: 'Others paint nature, I paint art.' "
Instantly recognisable in the street, with his shaggy dark hair and full beard, Hebborn, a homosexual, was also an unabashed hedonist with a taste for good food and good Italian wine.
Hebborn did not appear to have been mugged, since his wallet and credit cards were still on him when he was taken to hospital. One possibility is that he had suffered a stroke. He was known to be in indifferent health at the time of his death.
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