BULL STREET - The art of the Con

Eric Hebborn - Faking it

Eric Hebborn was able to top that one by a significant margin when he published the “Faker’s Handbook” (which gave intimate instructions to would be forgers in how to use that profession for fun and profit. He gave these future criminals, chapter and verse on how to use art for the purposes of separating rich people from their money. Eric was born to a poverty-stricken Cockney family in the early 1930s. He was raised by a sadistic mother who beat him into submission regularly and for no particular reason. He often told others in later life that he got beaten for merely arising in the morning. Not totally realizing what was going on, Eric attempted to get back at society for the severe pounding he had been taken from his mother and did the obvious; early on he set fire to his public school in order to make a statement. This did not sit well with the authorities.

The school board was not pleased at all with that action and hustled him into a reform school where he continued to be beaten on a regular basis, but this time by the other students who just plain didn’t like him. However, he must have taken learning a little more seriously there and along with the fact that his mother was no longer able to influence, him he started to paint. It turned out that he was an excellent painter with substantial potential and soon Hebborn started winning serious awards for his handiwork. Eventually he was admitted to the Royal academy, was awarded second place in that institution for one of his works and received a free ride to Rome to continue his studies.

Eric found work with a picture restorer, George Aezel during that period and soon learned how to manipulate the canvas, the paints the colors and the work itself. He was soon providing a value added to the restoration shop’s clientele by adding pizzazz to otherwise dull work through the simplest techniques. Moreover, he found that be changing the name of the artist that had created the work to one more famous, he had indeed added substantial inherent value to the work as well. Soon Aezel discovered that Eric's reworked paintings were eventually being sold or auctioned off at much higher prices than originally anticipated they started to create a plan. It was obvious to the two conspirators, that in spite of the substantial increase in value that the paintings were bringing, the restoration shop was not participating fully in the increased evaluation.

Hebborn and Aezel formed a partnership in which Hebborn would paint originals that would actually be copies of the style of old masters, while Aezel who up to this point had a fine reputation and was well known in the industry, would move the product out the door. Soon there were Hebborn originals carrying the names of the most famous painters such as Poussin, Ghisi, Tiepolo, Van Dyck, Rubens and many more, proudly hanging in such places of Pierpont Morgan Library, the National Gallery in Washington and the British Museum.

Moreover, almost every one of them had been authenticated by highly regarded critics and evaluators of fine art such as Sir Anthony Blunt and Sir John Pope Hennessy, who were at that time considered by the art word as the best appraisers in art world. Naturally, the auction galleries were making money on head over heels on these paintings that Aezel seemed to be plucking from the sky, but nevertheless, they couldn’t wait to get their hands on Aezel’s next consignment and Christie’s, Sotheby’s and London dealer Colnaghi all stood in line for more of these fabricated works.

Eventually something this good had to end and when Colnaghi’s finally realized that they had bought some fakes from Aezel in 1978 they started to gently pull the plug. Not only was Hebborn disgraced but the market for old masters collapsed when the realization hit that he was one of the most prodigious artists in history and that every one was a fraud. The entire London art world started looking over its shoulders and business in paintings and sculpture as well, came to screeching halt while the galleries and private holders inventoried their paintings to see how bad they had been taken.

During the period that followed, Hebborn not only produced more paintings than ever but also wrote a book entitled the book “Drawn to Trouble”, which was also published under the title, “Master Faker”. In order to make his destruction process totally complete and to bring chaos to an already broken industry, he fueled the fire by saying that numerous paintings that hung the better museums are around town were forgeries that he had created. This did not earn him a boy scout merit badge for truthfulness. However, that was never his forte anyway. Perhaps it was his early upbringing by his sadistic mother that made him want to get even with society and their overbearing pomposity. He never missed an opportunity to tell social gatherings how he fooled this one or bamboozled that one. Somehow, he felt much better after making some of his contemporaries look like utter fools. However, with a mother from hell itself you can certain understand a little of what made the man tick.

Moreover, Hebborn was a great artist who probably knew what materials to use in creating frauds far better than most any of his predecessors. In addition, before copying an old master’s work, he would study him assiduously and literally try to crawl into his brain so that he could imagine that he were him when he was at work painting. The combination of the being a well-informed person regarding the critical ingredients that were required for a picture of a certain period, the fact that he was a natural talent and the fact that he could literally become the artist himself while he was at work turned out to be a particularly deadly and profitable combination.

Hebborn died on January 11 of this year in Rome when he had his skull broken by a heavy instrument, probably by one of his disgruntled clients or lovers, he had produced by his own admission over a thousand forgeries. However, Eric had made some serious money during this period and never being much of a ladies man, had turned to the other sex for satisfaction. He had hopped from one bed to another always looking for the right man with whom to settle down. However, in spite of being smitten with any number of them, it seemed to be a case of unrequited love. At the time of his life, he was still trying to fool the world with his art and doing a credible job of it. It is estimated that there are over 500 of his phony paintings still hanging on walls of famous museums, in the collections of art patrons and sitting in galleries waiting to be sold to this day. Hebborn had indeed left quite a mark on his chosen profession. His sadistic mother would probably be quite proud of her son’s work in that regard. He got even with everyone who crossed his path and then some.

 

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