ARCA Blog Editor Catherine Sezgin continues her look at Jonathan Keats book FORGED. [Here's a link to a 45-minute documentary on the art forger Eric Hebborn on YouTube.]
What is History? Eric Hebborn (1934-1996)
The number of works by Eric Hebborn in public collections will never be certain. Between the 1960s and his death in 1996, Hebborn created an estimated thousand drawings in the manner of various old masters, artfully mixed in with thousands more of legitimate origin that he handled as a dealer. Though dozens of the fakes have been detected by curators, and more were revealed by Hebborn himself in his notoriously mischievous 1991 autobiography, Drawn to Trouble, the vast majority remain in circulation under names other than his own.
In his chapter on Eric Hebborn, Keats describes the forger’s schooling (which ended when Hebborn set the school cloakroom on fire) and artistic training. After earning numerous prizes and ‘had establishment credentials that were impeccable – and that would have ensured him a sterling career a century earlier, before modernism supplanted academic acumen with avant-garde innovation,’ Hebborn work for art restorers allegedly led to opportunities for fraud. Hebborn would never be convicted of forgery or any other crime – his punishment was a fatal blow to the back of his head at the age of 61. The forger, who even published a handbook on his techniques, blamed experts for the false attributions of his works.
Hebborn distinguished his operation from one blatantly out to make money by subscribing to a “moral code”: “Never sell to a person who was not a recognized expert, or acting on expert advice,” he vowed. “Never make a description or attribution unless a recognized expert has been consulted; in which case the description or attribution would in reality be the expert’s. Hebborn’s job was to create artwork that would silently telegraph the attribution he intended. To succeed, he needed to absorb not only the nuances of how the master drew or painted but also the intricacies of how the connoisseur reasoned.
In 1978 the Colnaghi & Co. in London recalled some Old Master drawings brought to them by Hebborn. Keats examines the possibility that Hebborn exaggerated his forgeries and his effect on the history of art.
Of course, his reputation as a fraud was what gave his confabulation credibility. He didn’t need to make five hundred forgeries after the Colnaghi affair; simply claiming to have done so was enough to throw art history into turmoil. In fact, faking his fakery may have been his masterstroke, since no amount of sleuthing could detect forgeries that never existed.
We can imagine that any drawing lacking certain provenance is by Eric Hebborn, or by the school of Hebborn established with the publication of his Art Forger’s Handbook. By extension, we can see all art of any age as contemporary, eternally current, and perpetually relevant. Historians may fret, and philosophers may quibble. But for the artists who made the work, whoever they may be, forgery is immortality.