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Eric Hebborn: Portrait of a Master Forger (1991)

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When contemporary critics did not seem to appreciate his own paintings, Eric Hebborn began to copy the style of old masters such as: Corot, Castiglione, Mantegna, Van Dyck, Poussin, Ghisi, Tiepolo, Rubens, Jan Breughel and Piranesi. Art historians such as Sir John Pope Hennessy declared his paintings to be both authentic and stylistically brilliant and his paintings were sold for tens of thousands of pounds through art auction houses, including Christie’s. According to Eric Hebborn himself, he had sold thousands of fake paintings, drawings and sculptures. Most of the drawings Hebborn created were his own work, made to resemble the style of historical artists — and not slightly altered or combined copies of older work.

In 1978 a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, Konrad Oberhuber, was examining a pair of drawings he had purchased for the museum from Colnaghi, an established and reputable old-master dealer in London: one by Savelli Sperandio and the other by Francesco del Cossa. Oberhuber noticed that two drawings had been executed on the same kind of paper.

Oberhuber was taken aback by the similarities of the paper used in the two pieces and decided to alert his colleagues in the art world. Upon finding another fake “Cossa” at the Morgan Library, this one having passed through the hands of at least three experts, Oberhuber contacted Colnaghi, the source of all three fakes. Colnaghi, in turn, informed the worried curators that all three had been acquired from Hebborn.

Colnaghi waited a full eighteen months before revealing the deception to the media, and even then never mentioned Hebborn’s name, for fear of a libel suit. Alice Beckett states that she was told ‘…no one talks about him…The trouble is he’s too good’. Thus Hebborn continued to create his forgeries, changing his style slightly to avoid any further unmasking, and manufactured at least 500 more drawings between 1978 and 1988.


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