Eric Hebborn

From Academic Kids

Eric Hebborn (1934-1996) was a British painter and art forger.

Eric Hebborn was born to a Cockney family in 1934. According to him, his mother beat him constantly. At the age of eight, he set fire to his school and was sent to Borstal reformatory. There teachers encouraged his painting talent and he became connected to Maldon Art Club where he held his first exhibitions at the age of fifteen. Later he also claimed that there he acquired homosexual habits.

Hebborn also befriended art restorer George Aczel and learnt his trade—to the extent of altering older landscape paintings or painting new ones of blank canvases so that they could be sold for more money.

Hebborn joined the Royal Academy and flourished there. He won Silver Award and received a scholarship to British art school in Rome in 1959. He became part of the international art scene and got acquainted with art historian and secret spy Anthony Blunt in 1960. Eventually he decided to settle in Italy and found a private gallery.

When contemporary critics did not seem to appreciate his own paintings, he began to copy the style of old masters like Rubens, Breughel and Piranesi. Art historians like Sir John Pope Hennessy declared his paintings authentic and they were sold through art auction houses like Christie's for tens of thousands of pounds. According to Hebborn himself, he sold thousands of fake paintings, drawings and sculptures. Most of his paintings were original pictures drawn in the style of historical artists—not slightly altered or combined copies of older work.

In 1978 a London art dealer Colnaghi noticed that two paintings, which had been acquired through Hebborn, had been painted on the same kind of canvas. Hebborn's market collapsed temporarily but he continued and manufactured 500 more paintings.

Hebborn was unmasked in 1984 when curators of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the Morgan Library in New York noticed that two of the paintings they had separately acquired through Hebborn were painted on the same paper. They checked the other paintings they had received from the same source. Hebborn was forced to confess—which he did in a full media campaign that he used to denigrate the art world.

In his autobiography Drawn to Trouble (1991), Hebborn criticized the art world, critics and art dealers. He boasted on how easily he had fooled supposed art experts and how eager the art dealers were to declare his works authentic to maximize their profits. Hebborn also claimed that some of the works that had been proven genuine were actually his fakes and that Anthony Blunt had been his lover.

On January 8, 1996, shortly after the publication of Italian edition of his book The Art forger's Handbook, Eric Hebborn was found lying is a street in Rome. His skull had been caved in with a blunt instrument. He died in hospital in January 11.

There is still controversy about the provenance of some paintings hanging in various collections.

Hebborn's books

  • Drawn to Trouble (1991)
  • Art Forger's Handbook (1997, posthumous)
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