An Old Master or two to pay the bills : ART MARKET

Picture faker Eric Hebborn claims to have duped the establishment in a wholly professional scam. His ex-lover now says he only did it for the money - and a l augh. Geraldine Norman, who first exposed Hebborn, gives the inside story

Geraldine Norman
Sunday 29 January 1995 01:02

THE FIRST phone call from San Diego came through last June. Graham Smith - the lover, back in the Sixties, of a notorious picture faker called Eric Hebborn - wanted to know if I would write up his version of their story. I hadn't spoken to him since 1978, the year when I wrote the first expose of Hebborn's forgeries, pointing to several Old Master drawings from his hand at the British Museum in London, the National Gallery in Washington, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottowa and the National Museum in Copenhagen.

In those days, Graham was a plump young man, whom I remember always wearing a white woollen sweater. When I probed him about the fakes then, he said Eric had probably made them - but he'd done it behind a locked door and he, Graham, had never actually seen him at work. "I was protecting myself," he now explains. "Of course I saw Eric making them. I antiqued them for him."

After the second or third phone call from San Diego last summer, I said I would write the story. I persuaded a specialist art magazine, New York's Art and Auction, to commission an article and cleared the decks for a big interview.

Graham's voice sounded the same on the phone as it had in 1978 - but 15 years in California had transformed him visually. I opened the door to a small man in a black trilby hat, black leather jacket, black trousers and black cowboy boots. On a gold chainaround his neck he had an openwork heart, a memento of his great love who died seven years ago - John, a painter and decorator from Putney who wanted to be a woman.

Graham spoke of how Eric had invented stories about making fakes, and had even claimed authorship of genuine Old Master drawings - a Breughel-school view of Roman ruins, for instance, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His account of Eric's activities was so bizarre that both the New York Times and the Guardian have recently followed up the story - which highlights, I suppose, the public's fascination with tricksters who can take the establishment for a ride. Here, then, is the inside story.

Eric Hebborn and Graham Smith lived together from 1956 to 1969. After denying that he made the fakes when I first approached him in the late Seventies - and later suing an Italian paper that called him a faker - Hebborn in 1991 published an autobiography, Drawn to Trouble, which purported to tell all. He claimed to have put over 1,000 fakes into circulation, but Graham Smith describes the book as a souffle of fact and fiction.

Both men are British and went to art school in London, Eric to the Royal Academy and Graham to the Royal College. Today, both are living with the repercussions of their deeds - Eric in Rome and Graham in San Diego. Eric is making antique drawings and paintings for clients who want to hang them on the wall and deceive their friends - he has just spent six months on a Canaletto oil of which he is rather proud. Commissions are channelled through the Archeus Gallery in Bond Street, London, whose prop rietor, Brian Balfour-Oates, explains that he is keeping a photographic archive of Hebborn's creations so any future doubts over authorship can be easily resolved.

Graham is making terrifying erotic drawings of great sensitivity; they express his horror at the impact of Aids on the homosexual community. He uses a highly finished academic style, reminiscent of the fine drawing taught by 19th- century French academies. He sells them through the Rita Dean Gallery in San Diego.

Both men are gifted artists but their careers - and friendship - must be among the most bizarre on record. "Why has Graham suddenly started talking after keeping quiet all these years?" Eric growled, when I spoke to him recently on the telephone. "I think he's just looking for publicity for the autobiography he's writing." Graham Smith is indeed writing a stream-of-consciousness autobiography which will be very different from Eric's. "Of course I'm looking for publicity for the book," he admits, "and fo r my drawings too."

Eric is huffed by Graham's allegation that his 1991 autobiography is half fact, half fiction. "All of it is broadly true," he says, "though there may be lapses of memory." Just as he previously denied making fakes, he now denies inventing stories to tease the public. The twinkle in his eye, however, often belies what he says. In a mellow mood he once told me: "I like to spread a little confusion."

Eric was born in 1934, the son of a London grocer's assistant; at the age of eight he burned down his school and was sent to borstal. He lived with various foster parents and won a place at Chelmsford art school at the age of 15, moving to Walthamstow art school two years later and then to the Royal Academy. Graham's father was a stoker at the Knight's Castile soap factory in Silvertown, east London; his mother died when he was six years old. That summer his father sent him away to a holiday camp where he was raped - the start of a homosexual career which has carried him effortlessly through the salons of the art world.

Graham was 16, newly arrived at Walthamstow art school, when he met Eric. "Eric's friends had set me up for him," Graham recalls. "I had short platinum blond hair, red satin trousers, green eye shadow and two black velvet beauty spots. I thought I was bohemian, not queeny, but Eric put me into flannels and blazer as quickly as he could."

Their first home was a room in the Cumberland Hotel, a slum property in Highbury, north London; Graham spent two years there alone after Eric won the Prix de Rome and went to Italy. On his return, the two young artists haunted junk shops and began to buyand sell the old drawings they discovered. Their best source was Marie Gray who ran a junk shop in Cecil Court, off the Charing Cross Road, in central London. It was she who first suggested to Eric that he try making "old" drawings and putting them intoauction.

She also provided blank sheets of period paper.

Eric started with Gainsboroughs, did a few Varleys, Sandbys and other English watercolourists and made rather a speciality of Augustus John. They sold at auction for prices in the £50-£500 range. The couple's main business, however, was dealing in genuine but minor drawings; the fakes simply provided a little additional income.

In 1963, fed up with Eric's lack of success as an artist (Abstract Expressionism was then in fashion and nobody looked at figurative work), they decided to move to Rome. It was in Rome that Eric made his first serious Old Master drawing, a Lamentation ofthe Three Marys more or less in the manner of Mantegna. Graham antiqued it. "I poured boiling water over it. Eric was using modern Pelikan sepia drawing inks - that's why it needed the boiling water treatment. I also inscribed it EH in a wobbly Victorian hand as a let-out for Eric and me." It was sold to Colnaghi's, the Bond Street dealers, for a four-figure sum - and the windfall persuaded Eric to make more Old Masters.

The sales were greatly facilitated by Eric's friendship with Anthony Blunt, then director of the Courtauld Institute and Keeper of the Queen's Pictures - he was unmasked as a Russian spy in 1979. They had met while Eric was a Rome scholar; the famous arthistorian had been fascinated by the brilliant young artist. After Eric and Graham moved to Rome, they would stay with Blunt at the Courtauld Institute on their visits to London and Blunt would spend holidays with them in Italy. "Anthony reall y fanciedEric," says Graham. But the relationship was never consummated - "Eric is only turned on by beautiful young boys." Both Eric and Graham insist that Blunt never recognised their drawings as fakes.

Homosexuality undoubtedly helped Eric and Graham to make their way in the art world - and sell their fakes. Their influential friends included Christie's representative in Rome, Harry Ward-Bailey, and Tony Clarke, director of the Minneapolis Institute ofArts - both of whom have subsequently died.

"One time when Tony was over," Graham remembers, "Harry took us in his stationwagon to this totally amazing restaurant deep in the country - it was run by two old Italian peasants. When we arrived there, all the boys who were standing around disappeared into the bushes and came back as girls."

The main difference between Graham's account of their lives and Eric's is to do with motivation. Graham suggests they both loved art and having a good time; faking was a useful sideline that simply helped pay the bills. Eric, by contrast, describes the elaborate forethought that went into fakes which were deliberately designed to take specific art historians and dealers for a ride. "It's typical of Eric," says Graham. "He's trying to make himself out to be bigger and grander than he really is."

Graham says Eric never, as he claims, made a Van de Velde seascape from scratch for the Mayfair restorer George Aczel; nor did he make a Corot drawing to deceive James Byam Shaw, the famous connoisseur proprietor of Colnaghi's; nor did he copy a Breughel-style sketch of Roman ruins, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and flush the original down the lavatory. "I bought the Breughel drawing in a Colnaghi frame at a London auction," Graham told me. "I have a good eye - of course I could tell the difference between a drawing I'd bought and an Eric copy. He's put a lot of nonsense in that book." !

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