How a British novelist fooled the US art world

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SOME of the biggest names in the art world have been the victims of a literary hoax perpetrated by the author William Boyd and the rock star turned publisher David Bowie.

Last week the glitterati of New York gathered for a launch party for Boyd's biography of the obscure and tragic American artist, Nat Tate.

Tomorrow, the cream of the British art world will gather at a smart London restaurant for the UK launch of the memoir. Last weekend the Sunday Telegraph ran a full-page extract from the book.

The story of Nat Tate is indeed a poignant one, and in New York eyes misted over as Bowie read from William Boyd's memoir, recounting how the depressive but gifted artist burnt most of his paintings then jumped to his death from the Staten Island ferry at the tender age of 31.

The only problem is that Nat Tate never existed. William Boyd's memoir is a work of fiction. Some of the paintings pictured in it are by Boyd himself. The photograph of Tate on the cover, like other photographs in the book, are taken from William Boyd's private collection of photographs of unknown people he has collected over the years.

I was present at the New York launch of the book and watched artists, collectors and critics receiving their copies of the book on Nat Tate and listening in respectful silence to details of his suicide.

Among the cognoscenti at the party in the artist Jeff Koons' studio on Broadway were Koons himself, fellow artists Frank Stella and Julian Schnabel as well as Bill Buford, deputy editor of the New Yorker, the novelists Jay McInerney, Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, and representatives of the New York Times, New York Post and the Daily News. If any smelled a rat, none was prepared to admit to it.

American art critics whom I asked about Nat Tate described him as "interesting but not terribly well known". 21 Publishing, which has published the book, is run by David Bowie, Sir Timothy Sainsbury, the London gallery owner Bernard Jacobson and Karen Wright, the editor of Modern Painters magazine.

Challenged by The Independent, Ms Wright said: "Will Boyd and I were both aware it was a scam, but we never meant it maliciously. Part of it was we were very amused that people kept saying `yes, I've heard of him.' There is a willingness not to appear foolish. No one wants to admit they've never heard of him. But critics are too proud to admit that."

William Boyd would not comment last night. But in an interview with The Independent to be published on Saturday, he admits: "It's a little fable for now and for any time. I think it's particularly relevant now, when, almost overnight people are becoming art celebrities."