May 11, 2008

Eric Hebborn as Eric Hebborn

The art forger Eric Hebborn, who was murdered in Rome in 1996, is a rather interesting figure whom the art world has tried to forget. From the article "The Art of the Master Forger" in Quadrant by philosopher David S. Oderberg:

His introduction to the forger's art began around this time, at the premises of a mysterious Mr Aczel in London (though he is possibly a composite character). George Aczel, Picture Restorer to the Trade, had a thriving business "touching up" paintings belonging to the well heeled, and trained RA students in his workshop. At first the training was fairly standard -- filling in damaged bits of the canvas with suitably similar colours, repairing cracks, and so on. The objective was "to make the mend invisible". The students progressed to mixing all kinds of complex combinations of paint and handling more "delicate" repairs. Aczel noticed Eric's proficiency at "painting-in large areas of missing colour in the style of the original artist", and so passed more "large-scale" work on to him: "Thus it was that under Mr Aczel's guidance I began, little by little, to develop my abilities and improve my knowledge of the materials and methods of the Old Masters until I would one day be able to `restore' a whole painting -- from nothing at all."

At this point Eric comments:

The borderline between what is restoration and what is simply repainting is not always clear. Nor should it be thought that old pictures are necessarily spoiled by modern alteration. This attitude arises from a scientific approach devoid of any aesthetic judgment. Would we return the Sistine Chapel to what it was before Michelangelo exchanged the Perugino frescos for his own? Well, no, but it would be nice to have the Peruginos as well. Would we remove the retouching with which Rubens was in the habit of improving his collection of mediocre Old Masters? No. The truth is that age in itself is obviously no guarantee of quality, and many old pictures are bad old pictures, some so bad it would be difficult to make them worse.

Hebborn soon discovered what Mr Aczel already knew, that:

[p]ictures that are unsaleable are bad business; and by some warped kind of logic become bad art. Nobody wants bad art, so dealers have it "improved" and that was how Mr Aczel made most of his money. Should a painting be unsaleable because it represented an ugly woman, the ugly woman would become a pretty young girl. If it represented a saleable young man contemplating an unsaleable skull, the offending skull was changed into a brimming glass of wine, or some other object with commercially viable associations. A cat added to the foreground guaranteed the sale of the dullest landscape. Dogs and horses enlivened otherwise unsaleable pastures. Balloons floated into commercially deficient skies at once became immensely important (that is, expensive) documents in the history of aviation. Popular signatures came and unpopular signatures went. Sullen-faced individuals left our easels wreathed in smiles. Poppies bloomed in dun-coloured fields. Unknown sitters transformed themselves into illustrious statesmen, generals, admirals, actors, actresses, musicians, and men of letters. So, like Gilbert's king whose heart was twice as good as gold, we "... to the top of every tree promoted everybody".

And here's a long, rather grim 2001 NY Times magazine article, "A Crisis of Fakes: The Getty Forgeries," about a long-drawn out brouhaha at the Getty Center museum in LA. The Getty is the world's best-endowed museum, and by law, it must spend 5% of its wealth each year, so it is the number one target of forgers, which has led to a number of scandals. In this one, a curator noticed that a half dozen Old Master drawings expensively purchased by his predecessors looked like original Hebborns, which eventually led to his firing and his lawsuit against the Getty. It's not that fun of an article, though, because there's not enough Hebborn in it.

The most famous forgery case was fought out right after WWII, when art dealer and portraitist Han van Meegeren was put on trial in the Netherlands for having collaborated with the Nazis for trading a national treasure, an early Vermeer, to Hermann Goering for 200 lesser Dutch paintings. Van Meegeren's defense was that he was a national hero because he'd painted the Vermeer himself. So, he proposed he paint another Vermeer, and he was ultimately convicted only of fraud and sentenced to a year in prison for the various "Vermeers" he'd sold to others.

The Goering painting is quite ugly. Van Meegeren justified this by claiming it was an early Vermeer, before he'd developed his exquisite mature style. Van Meegeren had succeeded in getting some of his work validated by the leading Vermeer scholar by making it fit the art historians' pet theory of the time: that the young Vermeer had traveled to Italy and studied Caravaggio's paintings and been influenced to paint large religious paintings, which might eventually turn up. So, van Meegeren painted pictures that looked like the hypothetical missing link pictures.

Philosopher Denis Dutton argues that forgeries of Old Masters look too much like the art of their own time to survive detection for long -- that one of van Meegeren's Vermeer faces looks like Greta Garbo. Of course, this assumes we've unmasked all the old forgeries, which is a big If.

There's been a theory for a long time that the 1911 theft from the Louvre of the Mona Lisa (which was recovered in 1913) was part of an elaborate conspiracy to pawn off forged copies of the Mona Lisa on American robber barons who would think they were buying the real thing. But, I can't find much confirmation for that cool idea.

You'll notice that the topic of art forgery is more interesting to philosophers than to art historians, who would prefer not to think about it. Philosophers like to ask questions like, "If this small sketch was so beautiful it was worth a million dollars when it was a Raphael, why isn't it worth anything now that it's a Hebborn?" Works of art are the modern equivalent of medieval saints' relics, the remnants left behind by secular saints. You are paying to own something that was touched by Raphael.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Steve - Have you seen the incredibly self-indulgent but somehow entertaining Orson Welles movie "F is for Fake!"?

Anonymous said...

American robber barons

Ahem, don't you mean "hard-working industrialists"?


Anonymous said...

What do you mean there's no proof, it was the subject of one of the best Dr. Who serials! :)

Ahem, don't you mean "hard-working industrialists"?
Paleocons aren't required to like business, I think. ;)

Unknown said...

Fun. You might enjoy Dutton's (one "n" in Denis, btw) book about forgers and forgery too. It's first-rate.

C. Van Carter said...

Someone dodgy telling you "it's an early X, before he developed his exquisite mature style" should be enough to determine an artwork is a forgery, without even looking at it.

I second the recommendation of "F is for Fake"

Anonymous said...

Steve, in your art entries you should consider informing readers that the art market is booming in the midst of our macro economic crisis because artwork is an extreme flight to safety for investors similar to gold or jewelry.

In other words, the savvy in America are hedging against the dollar. This is the most important story in the 2008 art world. When a currency crashes...the smart money owns farmland, precious metals, jewelry and works of art.

The dumb money stands around and asks "...what happened?"

Tino said...

“You are paying to own something that was touched by Raphael.”

Makes sense. But I would also add some economics to it: you are paying for (investing in) an asset that through its nature guaranteed to be fixed in supply.

Raphael + Raphael’s unique idea can never be duplicated and driven down in price, but some good painter imitating Raphael can.

Thursday said...

When it comes to art there are two things that make it valuable: its aesthetic value and status value. The two are not the same, and as the first is sometimes inaccessible to all but the most sensitive and talented, the latter will often take over.

Anonymous said...

"If this small sketch was so beautiful it was worth a million dollars when it was a Raphael, why isn't it worth anything now that it's a Hebborn?"

For the same reason the baseball that Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run is worth much more than a baseball that Ray Durham fouled off 3 innings before. Historic art is basically memorabilia.

Kai Carver said...

A long time ago at a dinner party in Paris, I argued that museums are inherently undemocratic, because they restrict access to people who can afford to travel to certain geographic locations, wait in long lines, and pay high ticket prices. I suggested money should be invested to make excellent forgeries so people in any major population center could enjoy the experience of seeing the world's greatest artworks. A museum could sell one of its precious Old Masters and use the money to make excellent copies of 50 others. Technology can probably help to make this increasingly cheap and repeatable.

Reaction was uniformly negative. I kept asking, if most people can't distinguish between a high-quality reproduction and the original, isn't that good enough? Eventually, an attractive woman told me, in a pitying tone: "You have a terrible relation to matter" (it sounded better in French). That shut me up.

But as I think about it years later, far from those withering eyes, I think I had a point! Of course, if museums started to apply such a policy, the high art market would tank.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip on this Hebborn dude.

I looked him up and apparently his books are very popular among art students. who better to teach art than a great forger?

KlaosOldanburg said...

seeing this reminded me of the art coverage here at isteve:

(who needs satire when reality is this absurd?)

Anonymous said...

"F for Fake" is brilliant on many levels. You could study that movie forever.

"Go on singing!" Wonderful!

Anonymous said...

Steve, I notice that you like to refer to Raphael in art conversations, and that you have read Paul Johnson's Art: A New History. I've read it as well and Johnson gives the impression, not verbatim, that he considers Raphael the greatest artist ever. Do you agree with his assessment?

Steve Sailer said...

Thanks for asking, but the more I study the history of art the more I see that to offer a legitimate personal opinion on something like who was the greatest, you have to be able to draw well enough to attempt copies of the great painters' works so you can see the problems they overcame. I can't draw very well, so I'm not going to offer a personal opinion.

I would note, however, that Raphael would seem reasonably comparable to Mozart, who died at 35, two years younger than Raphael. Music scholars have amused themselves speculating on what Mozart would have composed if he'd lived his three score and ten (an opera of "Faust" with a libretto by Goethe?), and most seem to believe it would unquestionably have been the greatest body of work by any composer.

On the other hand, Beethoven was going strong just before he died at 57, so maybe his 10th and 11th Symphonies would have tipped the scales in his favor.

Bill James distinguishes between baseball players' "peak" and "career" accomplishments -- e.g., Sandy Koufax vs. Warren Spahn. That's a useful distinction to keep in mind.

K artist said...

It is wonderful to have discovered your Blog.

As it happens, in 1972-3 I worked for George Aczel in London as his apprentice working as a colour matcher, filling in the damaged areas (usually long cracks) in the paintings.

Little did I know that Sid, Eric and George were to become so famous. I was a naive 23year old Australian Gal just dying to be part of a restoration studio and had no idea of the intrigue going on around me. I was sent to the Academy of Art to study colour matching and hence worked on some rather spectacular paintings.
Apparently George thought I was good enough to keep on for some time until I was sacked for asking too many questions.

In retrospect I remember moments when I was not allowed to be in the studio when visitors arrived, and was often asked to be confidential about what I saw.

I am considering writing a book in response to reading Erics two missives...The Art Forger's Handbook and Drawn to Trouble.

In Aug 2007 I started art classes in the country town where I live in Australia and have steaked ahead, gaining enough recognition to have dozens of commissions under my belt.

I have just received a flyer called Fab Fakes, inviting artists to copy a master and enter it into a local competition.

It seems my life has gone in one big circle. I will definitely enter this one.

Cheers for now. Gilly (or should that be Gilty)

K artist said...

Steve, It is wonderful to know that others are interested in Eric Hebborn.

As it happens, I worked for George Aczel in London in 1972-3 as one of his young apprentices, colour matching areas of paintings which were damaged. A lot of famous artists were entrusted to me after which I handed them over to Sid.

Little did I know that George, Sid and Eric would become famous for forgery.

In retrospect I clearly remember George asking me to keep confidential anything that went on in the studio. I was a naive Australian Gal who just wanted to work in a restorer's studio and had no idea what was transpiring around me. I was later sacked for asking too many questions.

In 2007 I started art classes and wonder if I shouldn't do some Fab Fakes (as one gallery has invited local artists to do) just to keep my hand in.

I have read Eric's books, Art Forger's Handbook and Drawn to Trouble. Perhaps I should start my own book of my illustrious travels...for I have many stories from London.

Gilly (or should that be Gilty)