Van Meegeren, De Hory, Hebborn and Keating - The Master Forgers

Half the great art galleries in the world are probably showing brilliant fakes. This is the story of the men who created them.
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One January morning in 1996, on a cobbled street in Rome, a man was found dying in a pool of blood. His name was Eric Hebborn. A British expat and world renowned Art forger – he was killed with a blunt blow to the back of the head. No one has ever been tried for Hebborn’s murder, but his death marked a pivotal point in the history of art fakery.

By the mid 90s the art market had swelled to record proportions. The merest hint of a forger’s touch could knock millions off an auction price and Hebborn – like many of the best Art forgers – had a weakness for the showy confessional. With stakes running so high, his death marked the moment when the “honest” Art Forger ceased to be regarded as a loveable rogue. Instead Hebborn had become a multi million dollar liability.

A decade on, in a society saturated with counterfeits, copies and clones nothing is more charged with moneyed, mouth watering desire than a one off work of art. In this industry, “Is it real?” is literally a million dollar question.

Last April, a priceless Goya, “The Colossus” (1808) devalued overnight when the Prado in Madrid withdrew the work from a major exhibition amid doubts on authenticity. Two months later, a Rembrandt thought to be a fake, rocketed from $4 to $40 million when experts deemed it genuine.

So plagued is the art market with fake “anxiety” that serious art experts now work in teams to authenticate pieces for fear of massive personal libel suits. But however huge the efforts of those tasked with exposing forgeries, there is always a faker in the shadows ready to undo them. Currently it is the turn of the booming Russian Art market to struggle under a flood of forgeries, flying accusations and threats, but this is nothing new. Fakers have always enjoyed stirring up trouble.  As Orson Welles points out in his famous ‘74 documentary “F for Fake”: “We hanky panky men have always been with you.”

So when does a good copy become a fake? Who were the greatest Hanky Panky men? And why did they risk everything to outwit the art world?

A duplicate only enters the realm of fakes and forgeries when it is knowingly passed off as the real thing. This can be a copy of an existent work by a recognised artist, or a new work which mimics a great artist’s style and subject matter. The greatest of all Art Forgers tend to opt for the latter. In a practical sense, this prevents the possibility of a genuine painting ever being compared with a dubious copy. More appealingly, only an extremely accomplished artist with a thorough understanding of art history, has the requisite skill to create a passable mimic. In other words, they must be as good a technician as the original artist himself. And what better way for a thwarted genius to prove his worth?

One of the most respected forgers of the twentieth century was the Dutchman, Han Van Meegeren. Working as an artist during the 1920s Van Meegeren became embittered by critics more enamoured with modernism than his more old fashioned style. To prove his worth he began faking old masters and focussed on Holland’s greatest, Jan Vermeer, painter of the world famous “Girl with the Pearl Earring” (c1665) or the Dutch “Mona Lisa”.

Forging Vermeer became Van Meegeren’s speciality. He used seventeenth century canvasses and produced pigments that instantly created the “craquelure” (fine cracks) of old paintings. To counteract the expert’s connoisseurship he invented an early religious phase for the artist, bridging the style of his earlier works with his more famous later pieces. After six years in France perfecting his method, Van Meegeren emerged in 1937 with “The Disciples at Emmaeus”. A fake so good it was hailed by experts as the finest Vermeer they had ever seen. Selling to museums and collectors, including Nazi official Hermann Goring, Van Meegeren rolled with his new found success. He lived a lavish lifestyle funded by fakes, but it was the deal with the Nazi that was to be his undoing.

After the war the connection between Goring and Van Meegeren was discovered and he was accused of being a Nazi collaborator. Faced with the choice between years as a hated traitor in prison or admitting he was a forger, Van Meegeren opted for the latter and confessed. To prove it, he produced his final fake. In front of crowds of astonished officials and reporters he painted a new “Vermeer” from scratch inside the court room. As a result, he emerged a national hero - the genius artist who conned a Nazi. For a few short months he enjoyed the personal artistic success he’d always craved, but barely lived long enough to enjoy it. He died of a heart attack shortly after the trial in 1947.

Around the time when Van Meegeren was publicly painting his last, a few hundred miles away in Paris, Elmyr de Hory was selling his first - a fake Picasso. For the next thirty years, de Hory took Van Meegeren’s place as one of the finest, most prolific forgers the art market has ever experienced. Having spent time in a Nazi concentration camp during the war, de Hory escaped to France. He then spent the rest of his life on the run. According to his biographer, Clifford Irving, de Hory lived “from day to day, from painting to painting from fake to fake, from conman to conman, from crook to crook and from town to town.”

Specialising in modern greats like Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani, de Hory moved constantly around Europe and America before winding up on Ibiza in the 1960s. A brief stint in jail turned him into a celebrity and he built on his fame by confessing all for Irving’s biography: “Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Forger of Our Time”.

Both men were filmed by Orson Welles for his classic documentary, “F for Fake” on Ibiza in the early 70s. In interview de Hory reveals a typical forger’s bitterness towards the art establishment, describing “the myth of the infallibility of art dealers and museum directors... their crookedness, their evilness and viciousness.”

Exposing this he implies – rather than making millions - was his primary passion. “I have not the vaguest idea the money that I got,” he tells Welles, “I could not estimate whether it was ten million, twenty million, dollars, pounds…all I got was a little television. I don’t have a dime to my name.” As if to prove his point, de Hory then churns out a couple more million dollar fakes and throws them, with an impish grin to camera - onto the fire.

Ironically, it was the greed of de Hory’s “crooked” dealers that proved his downfall. After they were caught in France, extradition orders were issued to bring de Hory back from Ibiza. Before he could face trial, he committed suicide. Thanks to Irving and Welles, he died an art legend.

Having failed to make a mark with his own art, South London forger Tom Keating also resented the art establishment. He laced his “sefton blakes” with disintegrating paint and fading colour to the dismay of collectors or even better, “rotten” dealers. He also confessed all, first to the police (though ill health prevented his trial) and then inevitably, in a book. When he died in 1984, the era of the loudmouthed loveable rogue died with him because next came Eric Hebborn, and the 1980s art boom.

In the true tradition of great art forgers, Hebborn was prolific. Born into a Cockney family in 1934, he demonstrated an unabashed wilfulness early on, by setting fire to his school. His artistic talent enabled him to escape his background and via an early career as an art restorer, he learnt the forger’s trade. On the proceeds, Hebborn spent the 70s and 80s living it up in Italy. He too rode the crest of a price boom that would change the art market forever.

Allowing for inflation, of the thirty most expensive paintings ever sold at auction, a third went under the hammer between 1987 and 1996. Since then, prices have continued to rise to unprecedented levels. Selling for over $53 million in 1987, Van Gogh’s “Irises” held the world record for over two years. Today, values are close to tripling that, but nothing threatens a price more than the whiff of a fake.

When the respected Bond Street dealers, Colnaghi realised a Master Drawing sold to them by Hebborn was a forgery, it led to a temporary crash in the Old Master market. Hebborn had proven outright that he was a walking financial liability. Rather than disappear quietly as everyone hoped, he vowed instead to dedicate the next decade to flooding the Old Master market with five hundred further fakes, and he didn’t stop there.

He too confessed all in his autobiography. In the aptly named “Drawn to Trouble” (1991), he boasted how easily experts were fooled and claimed a number of priceless Old Masters in museums were actually by him. Hebborn then showed everyone else how they could do the same with “The Art Forger’s Handbook”, a straightforward textbook outlining the tricks of his trade. Shortly after its publication in Italy, Hebborn was found dead.

No one knows the real reason behind Hebborn’s murder, but he left a testing legacy for serious art scholars. Any paintings connected to him - many of which hang in renowned collections – will always shadowed by the classic debate: “Is it real?”

The scientific way to be absolutely certain of a painting’s age and authenticity is to use modern forensic analysis. Unfortunately, the cost of using such technology still often outweighs the value of the artwork itself. “Anything between £5,000 and £100,000 is the price range at which dealers, collectors and auction houses will not subject works to extensive tests,” says DS Vernon Rapley, head of Scotland Yard’s specialist Art and Antique unit. “It costs in the region of £10,000 for basic forensics.”

So the embattled experts all forgers set out to deceive continue to defend their reputations with a range of traditional fake-spotting weaponry: from good old fashioned instinct to x-ray and from connoisseurship to the all important provenance - a “log book” of paperwork outlining the artwork’s history. But if you can fake a painting, you can also fake the provenance.

“There is always this wish to find the great object. Dealers can be fooled by false provenance and people playing a part with a great story or a line,” says DS Rapley, “but they don’t like to come to us and say I’ve been deceived because of their reputation, auction houses are the same.”

In the 1990s, the dealer John Drewe forged sales invoices, conned letters out of artist’s relatives and accessed leading museum archives to create fake provenance for forgeries painted by his partner, John Myatt. More recently, the Manhattan art dealer, Ely Sakhai, came up with an even simpler scam. A regular at Christies and Sothebys New York, he bought genuine works with good paperwork attached. Having copied the original painting, he would then pass off the forgery with the real paperwork to prospective buyers in Japan. Knowing the original artwork could withhold scrutiny without provenance, he sold these in the USA. Sakhai was only caught when Sothebys and Christies realised they were selling exactly the same Cezanne at the same time. The original was eventually sold at Sothebys for $310,000. The copy, having been discovered, was worthless and withdrawn from sale.

In the art world dance of dealers, academics, hustlers and moneymen, no one wants to be left holding the fake when the music stops. This was perhaps Eric Hebborn’s greatest crime. It wasn’t merely that he liberally sprinkled the system with forgeries. Far worse was his threat to reveal where his fakes were now.

Art forgers have since learned to keep their mouths firmly shut, leaving it to “honest” members of the art establishment to qualify an artwork’s authenticity. As such, they are the ones now dicing with death.

Fuelled by a flood of millionaire and billionaire oligarchs out to reclaim their heritage, the current boom in Russian art means even little known works are sold for record prices. As a result, there are also hundreds of forgeries flowing through the sales rooms. According to Alexander Tikhonov, the author of Russian Art in the West” the problem of fakes has also now “reached record proportions.”

In response, the Russian government has produced a five volume “Catalogue of Fraudulent Artworks” outing hundreds of fakes. The man behind the catalogue has said he constantly carries a gun. Another Russian specialist, Dr Vladimir Petrov who publicly admitted his concern over forgeries has a constant bodyguard. He claims fellow scholars have also received death threats. Authenticating artworks may well be the new form of Russian Roulette, but it’s not just a problem for Moscovites.

Experts in France and Italy compiling the new Catalogue Raissonne (comprehensive listing) of all Modigliani’s genuine works had to abandon their project in 2002. They too were hampered by death threats from collectors terrified their multi million dollar Modigliani’s might not make the catalogue.  Apparently hundreds of forgeries flooded the American market in the 50s, 60s and 70s. They’d been produced by a world famous expert forger - Elmyr de Hory.

Revenge is indeed a dish best served cold – even from the grave. Today it’s not the artist forger who fears the blunt blow to the back of the head, but a member of their “hated” art establishment – honest or not. An apt legacy perhaps in the eyes of Van Meegeren, de Hory, Keating and Hebborn who so resented the experts for failing to spot their artistic talent or more pertinently, their fakes.

Like all misunderstood geniuses, in death their lives have become the stuff of legend and their art – now sold honestly – is hotly collected. Prices range from £500 to £10,000. Just watch out for the fakes.