OBITUARY: Eric Hebborn

Barry Cole,Geraldine Norman
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:48

Eric Hebborn was the most successful art forger this century. By his own account he passed off some 1,000 paintings and drawings, predominantly Old Masters, to galleries world-wide ranging from the British Museum in London to the National Gallery in Washington, the Pierpont Morgan Gallery in New York and the National Museum in Copenhagen. Art experts and historians, the dealers Colnaghi's and the auctioneers Sotheby's and Christie's, the vehicles of his deception, were all taken in by his work.

It was not until 1978, 15 years after he had started on his forging career, that he was exposed, by the journalist Geraldine Norman. And it was not until 1991, when he published his teasing autobiography Drawn to Trouble: the forging of an artist, that Hebborn himself admitted to his history.

He was born in 1934, the son of a grocer's assistant, in South Kensington, London, but brought up, to his chagrin, in Essex. At the age of eight he burnt down his school and was sent to Borstal. He was then put to foster parents and at 15 won a place from Maldon's Secondary School to Chelmsford Art School; from there he went to Walthamstow Art School, which made more of a speciality in painting, and in 1956 he graduated to the Royal Academy Art Schools, where he won the Silver Medal for painting and a Rome Scholarship in engraving, which took him to the British Academy in Rome for two years. Three years after leaving the academy schools, in 1963 he moved permanently to Italy. He had one-man shows of his own paintings in the 1970s and 1980s in Tivoli, Genoa, Hamburg, Manila and at the Alwin Gallery in London.

After the publication of Drawn to Trouble, he had shows of his paintings at the Julian Hartnoll Gallery in London, and of his "fakes" at the Archeus Gallery. He was the subject of a BBC Omnibus film and last year published in Milan a book, Il manuale del falsario ("A Faker's Manual"), for which he was negotiating with an English publisher.

Eric Hebborn's autobiography, for a man not a practising writer, is as meticulously made as any of his Old Master drawings - and that ambiguity is intentional. He "adopted" my family (wife and three daughters) some 35 years ago, while living in Highbury, north London. At that time he was teaching at the Reigate and Redhill School of Art, and dealing in watercolours of the Norwich School. He became godfather to our youngest daughter. What he saw in such a family remains a mystery, unless he found in us a substitute for his own, then, long-lost siblings.

His greatest qualities were generosity, loyalty and - against all evidence - honesty. These qualities remained constant; whatever the defects or ups-and-downs of those he knew. He was always a giver. And he regarded debt as a matter of honour - creditors (perhaps with the exception of lawyers) were always, eventually, paid.

Honesty, of course, is philosophically difficult to define. Hebborn's often-quoted dictum that attributions to his drawings were made by others - never by him - applied equally to his way of living. None who knew him well ever saw him dissemble: what you saw was what you got.

For some 30 years he was a resident of Anticoli Corrado, near Rome, where, to his unabashed delight, he was known, particularly in the village bars, as "Il Professore" ("It only means teacher," he said).

Earlier, following his Rome Scholarship, he lived in the gatehouse to the Villa Doria Pamphili in Rome, and in Via Giulia. He then rented the Villa San Filippo, below the village of Anticoli, a few miles outside the city, on the road to Subiaco. This had been the home of many popes' gardeners.

Looking for somewhere more permanent he once showed me an abandoned barn in a wood beneath Anticoli (a village famous in Italy not only for its resident artists, but for its artists' models). "I'll make that my home," he said. Employing local builders and his own, then great, strength, he built Santa Maria, in Bosco di Ciabatta ("Slipper Wood"), where he was to spend all but the last few years of his life.

It was in Santa Maria that he began, for the first time in years, to create his own work - translating and illustrating the Epic of Gilgamesh; composing his autobiography; and painting. An exhibition of his watercolours of Tivoli and its environment at the Villa d'Este was not only a sell- out, but resulted in more commissions than he could accept.

As he aged - his beloved Chianti took its toll - he found travelling on foot (the only way) from Santa Maria to Anticoli an impossibility. So he left to live in an apartment in Piazza San Giovanni della Malva, in Trastevere, his spiritual home.

Hebborn was - and this comes out well in the autobiography - a remarkable raconteur. His tales pointed up to his phenomenal (if selective) memory, an ability which enabled him to assimilate, in time, Italian, Spanish - and Latin. He translated (and illustrated) Lorca and, over many years, the sonnets of Michelangelo and Giuseppe Belli. The latter, who wrote in the language of the ordinary Roman people, appealed particularly to one who saw no differences in humankind.

In response to his critics, he wrote: "I have never considered myself a misunderstood genius, or for that matter a genius at all. No one asked me to become an artist, and the world does not owe me a living."

Barry Cole

The first time I met Eric Hebborn, writes Geraldine Norman, was in 1980 over several bottles of red wine in the kitchen of his beautiful villa at Anticoli, in the company of his beautiful Filipino boyfriend who had hair down to his waist. I had arrived unannounced to ask if he wanted to talk about the fakes he had sold. I hoped the red wine might make him garrulous but he stuck, throughout the evening, to his story of having bought the fakes in a Covent Garden junk-shop and passed them on in good faith, believing them to be genuine.

It was clear he knew I didn't believe him and he didn't mind that at all. He talked a lot about Tom Keating, another British picture faker, who I'd helped to write a book. Hebborn twitted me about it and led me on to think that he was teetering on the brink of telling all himself - but then held back with a twinkle in the eye as if to say: "You can't catch me as easily as that." It was not, in fact, until 1991 that he published his own book, Drawn to Trouble, in which he finally admitted that he was the author of literally hundreds of fake Old Master drawings.

He did not, as far as I know, make a lot of money out of picture faking, but he was exceptionally successful in terms of hoodwinking art historians. Tom Keating made money at country auctions where hopeful but uninformed buyers thought they were making "discoveries"; he also got half a dozen works in the style of Samuel Palmer past Sotheby's and two Bond Street dealers, Colnaghi's and Leger's, thus arousing the suspicion of art historians - which led to his downfall.

Han van Meegeren, the famous Dutch faker of the late 1930s and 1940s, got his Vermeers past one ageing scholar - Abraham Bredius - while Elmyr de Hory sold Picassos and Modiglianis on a massive scale to an American millionaire caled Meadows. They were spotted once Meadows began to show them to experts. Hebborn's extraordinary success lay in deceiving the art historians themselves.

He didn't sell direct to museums. He put his Old Master drawings into Sotheby's and Christie's auctions and sold them to leading London dealers - who passed them on to museums. Before he was unmasked, his drawings had been bought as genuine by the British Museum, the National Gallery, Washington, the National Gallery of Canada, the Royal Museum of Copenhagen and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. That meant hoodwinking an awful lot of art historians.

It was obviously a help that everyone knew he was a friend of Professor Anthony Blunt, director of the Courtauld Institute, with whom he used to stay while in London. In the art world, people tend to be taken seriously if they are well connected. But Hebborn was also adept at hiding clues in his drawings. They would be related to a painting only reproduced in some exceptionally obscure book; they would be inscribed with old attributions to the wrong artist; they would, of course, be executed on paper of the right period, produced in the right region of Europe . . .

Like Tom Keating, van Meegeren and many other fakers, his prime motivation seems to have been resentment at his lack of recognition as an artist in his own right. By successfully deceiving experts he was able to tell himself that "they" knew nothing and were wrong to ignore his own work. Maybe he could also tell himself that he was just as good as the artists he imitated. In any case, he had a masterly understanding of art-historical bullshit; and he managed to leave many scholars with red faces.

Eric Hebborn, artist, sculptor, forger: born London 20 March 1934; died Rome 11 January 1996.

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