Untrained painter conned art world with fakes

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A painter with no formal training and failing eyesight, who produced forgeries of Victorian oil paintings to pay for his son's school fees, has been sentenced to two years in prison.

Robert Thwaites, 54, sold his forgeries to respected art dealers, including gallery owner and Antiques Roadshow expert Rupert Maas.

Thwaites' forgery of The Miser, by fairyland painter John Anster Fitzgerald, was sold to Mr Maas for £20,000, London's Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court heard.

Another one of his paintings, Going To The Masked Ball, also purportedly by Anster Fitzgerald, sold for more than £100,000 at auction to gallery proprietor Dr Christopher Beetles.

It was only when Thwaites attempted to sell a third painting entitled Poppy with Imps and Fairies and Foliage with his brother Brian Thwaites, 50, that a would-be client became suspicious and the pair were arrested.

Thwaites, who was described as an accomplished artist, despite having no formal training, worked as a graphic designer until the late 1990s, when he was forced to give it up as his eyesight deteriorated.

He was able to earn a modest living as an artist but his income was not sufficient to cover his son's school fees and bills.

Faced with mounting debts, the struggling artist hit upon the idea of passing off his own work as that of the Victorian painter.

He told Mr Maas his family owned several valuable paintings that his grandfather had taken in lieu of payment to settle a debt.

When Mr Maas showed the painting to an art conservator he agreed that: "It seems to be from the right period for a Fitzgerald".

Art historian Libby Sheldon, who examined the paintings, conceded they were, "very good forgeries," though containing a number of "puzzling features".

Comparison with a genuine Fitzgerald owned by the Tate Gallery revealed that "whole brush strokes were different," she said in evidence read to the court.

The brothers were caught in 2004 when Brian, who appeared in court yesterday in a wheelchair, attempted to sell a third painting.

During a search of Robert Thwaites's home police found an invoice for a book called The Art Forgers Handbook as well as a number of genuine Victorian newspapers which had been used for backing the painting.

The actual book was later found during a search of Brian Thwaites's property.

Rupert Thwaites, from Staffordshire, pleaded guilty to two counts of obtaining money by deception between April 1999 and February 2004 and one charge of conspiracy to obtain money by deception.

His brother got a 12-month sentence, suspended for two years, after admitting one count of conspiracy to obtain money by deception.

A third defendant, Gordon Strong, 58, from Portishead near Bristol, lied to a solicitor about one of the paintings. He received a community punishment order of 180 hours after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice.

Stuart Denny, for the defence, said Rupert Thwaites took full responsibility for involving his brother in the scheme.

He said he did so because Brian, who suffers health problems, due to a spine injury he received while serving in the army, was in "a very powerless state".

Sentencing Rupert Thwaites, recorder Terence Coghlan QC said: "You are a man of remarkably talented painting skills."

Referring to the paintings, he said: "They are deeply impressive and they have convinced and fooled experts, it's a remarkable talent you have. You duped dealers into paying money for pictures that you suggested were painted by distinguished artists"

Thwaites will serve half of his sentence before being released on licence.