Famous Fake Friday: Hebborn’s Piranesis

I thought today I might go back to my roots a little, if you will, and write about one of the forgeries that I came across while writing my undergraduate dissertation. This one is particular near and dear to me, because it afforded me one of my first opportunities to appreciate how easiy art forgeries can get swept into the general cannon of an artist and thereby make it incredibly to set the record straight.   But first, I thought I should give you a little bit of background on this guy, since I have somehow managed to not cover him on this blog just yet.

-Eric Hebborn demonstrating how he could recreate half of a missing painting from start to finish

Eric Hebborn (1934-1996) was an art forger active during the 1960s and 70s, who made a particular career for himself forging drawings.  This is an important point to make, because at the time drawings were considered the bottom end of the market, and did not have half the regulatory oversights (such as they were) that paintings had for example.  Hebborn himself found this prejuidice particularly abhorrent, as he argued that drawings were a far more interesting tool for understanding an artist’s creative process, and that more often than not they were the only part of an artist’s oeuvre that were actually completed entirely by the artist (which in hindsight seems incredibly ironic).  In his later career, after his exposure as a foger and stint with fame, Hebborn claimed that he had always been trying to demonstrate that an artist’s drawing style, for all that it was inherently unique, could be easily replicated and recreated by an artist hundreds of years who happened to be properly in tune with the original artist.  This could be achieved, he said, by retracing the starting point of the drawing, and from there follow the progression of the drawing as the artist intended, thus eliminating any hesitation that could give the forger away.  In short, his forgeries were academic experiments in deception, and if anyone fell for them, or later sold them for what they were not, that was not his problem.

Hebborn, Part of a Large Magnificent Port Used by the Romans, National Gallery of Denmark (click here to see it in comparison to the original)                                 (image courtesy of http://www.artfakes.dk)

One of his favorite artists to forge was Piranesi, an Italian etcher and engraver of the eighteenth century best known for his fantastic renderings of an idealized Ancient Rome.  Hebborn first came into contact with his work while on a scholarship to Rome in the early 1960s.  One day Hebborn came across one of his drawings, Part of a Large Magnificent Port Used by the Ancient Romans.  Hebborn’s later defense was that he felt the drawing was not Piranesi’s best work, and that the Italian master had somehow failed to get across the real image he intended due to constraints of the paper.  So Hebborn decided to recreate it “as Piranesi intended”.  He blew up the scale of the drawing and tampered with the proportions until he felt it looked perfect, then sold it on.  The drawing was authenticated as a genuine Piranesi countless times, and ended up in the National Gallery of Denmark.  In fact the Danish museum refused to admit it was a forgery until Hebborn himself claimed the work as his own on the BBC.

Now why did I tell you all of this background?  Because during my research of my dissertation I came across a catalogue raisonné of Piranesi which included Hebborn’s drawing as an original.  I can still remember how stunned I was sitting there, looking at a fact given to me in a book that I knew categorically to be false while knowing that there was  nothing I could do.  It still bothers me that people will misinterpret that book and continue using false information to try and build solid academic conclusions about Piranesi’s work.  It was at that point that I realized that the search for art forgeries is not just about revealing the fraud but also about preserving the real, as corny as that might sound.

I can tell you one thing.  I darn near defaced a library book to give future readers of that copy the real provenance of that drawing, then remembered that two wrongs do not a right make.  Although I still sometimes wish I had.


Famous Fake Friday: Pollock’s “One”


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In keeping with last week’s theme of dubious dealers, today we are going to look at an original painting that was later doctored and added to, creating a fake layer to the painting that was only discovered until over fifty years after the artist’s death.

Jackson Pollock, One Number 31, 1950. MOMA (for the full article on this painting, click here)

Most of you are probably aware of Pollock’s unique drip or action technique of painting, certainly there are plenty of photos depicting the artist in action, splashing buckets of house paint all over an piece of unstretched canvas on the floor.  One of his famous large scale works, “One, Number 31, 1950” was recently cleaned thoroughly for the first time since its’ acquisition by the MOMA in 1968.  And boy were the conservators in for a shock.

You see, many great works of art throughout history have had some minor tampering with throughout the ages (Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment and the fig leaves springs to mind).  However, such goings-on are exceedingly rare from the twentieth century onward.  So imagine the surprise of the conservators when, upon concluding that parts of the painting did not match Pollock’s technique, they uncovered an image of the work when it went on tour in 1962 without the uncharacteristic sections of paint.  This gave the MOMA a very neat window in which to date the “restoration” of the painting.

But what could have prompted such bizarre touch ups to a painting that could not have been more than a few decades old?  This is where it gets even more interesting.  The conservators at the MOMA discovered thin cracks under the fake patches of paint, suggesting that the dealer might have had the cracked areas covered up to make the painting more easily marketable.

Fortunately the conservators were able to lift off the fake layers of the painting to reveal the original work of the artist in all its’ cracked glory, allowing the painting to be displayed as Pollock would have intended.

Famous Fake Friday: “La Femme au Chapeau Bleu”


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Although today’s entry is on the short side, this is still a fascinating story of intrigue and art forgery and I would highly recommend reading both this article and this article to learn about this case.

(image courtesy of Art Market Monitor)

The story, in a nutshell, goes like this: Once upon a time there was a woman named Tatiana Khan who sold a small Picasso sketch of a lady in a blue hat for $2 million.  It sold for $2million because 1) it was a Picasso, 2) it belonged to a famous family estate (the kind that may have the word “Forbes” in the title).  One day the person who purchased the piece became concerned about its authenticity and started making enquiries.  It turns out that the fact that the sketch was maybe a few years old, made by a female artist living near LA.  Upon being confronted by the FBI, she made a startling confession: the artist had been asked by Ms. Khan herself to make a copy of the famous sketch, a rather involved story involving hoodwinking some bad guys with a copy of the piece.  Khan in turn had sold the piece as genuine and bought a Willem de Koonig with her ill gotten gains.


Famous Fake Friday: Icilio Federico Joni

Bernard Berenson, whom Thomas Hoving described as “the flamboyant and amoral art historian” was an art connoisseur in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who built up a reputation as sort of the be all and end all of art authentication at the time.  And for the most part he was an admirable fake buster.  Legend has it that he steeped himself so much in the world of Italian Gothic and Renaissance painters that he could tell a painting was wrong just by the fact this cherub’s hair was too curly or that saint’s toe was incorrectly placed.  We also know that Berenson, like all great fake busters, made the occasional mistake.  Which is surprising given that he had already contended with a far more proficient forger long before Van Meegeren showed up.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw a huge surge in interest for medieval works of art, and like with all markets where demand exceeds supply, creative and enterprising types will find ways to supply that demand.  This brings us to Icilio Federico Joni (apologies for the article, it has to be translated from Italian), the forger of the day.    At the time, Joni was a classically trained artist working in Sienna’s  thriving “art restoration” business, where he happily restored, fabricated and even flat out faked dozens of works by famous masters of Italian Medieval and Renaisance art.  Occasionally he would made copies at the behest of the owner of a work of art, but more often than not the Siennese painters would sell their work as genuine copies to dealers in Venice or Florence who would in turn sell the copies as genuine antiques.

Berenson, like many others, was initially fooled by Joni’s paintings until he had enough exposure to recognize distinctive and repeating traits in the artist’s work.  He duly tracked Joni down in Sienna and, astonishingly, sold off only a few of his paintings by Joni but keeping the rest for himself, whether as reminders against hasty judgments or as testing tools for his rivals is still unclear.  Here’s where things get a little interesting though.  See, I have a sneaky suspicion this where the “amoral” aspect of Berenson’s personality that Hoving mentioned comes through.

Perhaps partly inspired by his interactions with the great Benard Berenson, Joni took it upon himself to write his autobiography, Memoirs of a Painter of Old Pictures, in 1932.   He did so despite being bribed by a large consortium of art dealers to not reveal the “goings-on” of the trade in antiquities.  Personally I was surprised to discover the book, as I had never heard of the notable Joni who had duped Berenson when I have read so many other autobiographies of twentieth century art forgers.  But then I figured out why.

According to this article, Joni’s book was not only aggressively edited, removing all possible references to Berenson, but most of the copies were bought up and destroyed by Berenson’s close friend Joseph Duveen, so that few people even heard about the book in the U.S.  This leads me to believe that Berenson did in fact acknowledge that his paintings were fakes by Joni, but that he chose to sell them on as genuine antiques and perpetuate their forged authorship.  Why else would Berenson’s involvement with Joni be erased?

Fortunately for us, Joni’s autobiography was finally republished in 2004 to coincide with the opening of an exhibition in Sienna about the cities’ most famous art forgers.

Now if you will excuse me,  I have to go research more art forgers who were able to take Berenson down a peg or two.


A Famous Fake Inspired by Mother’s Day

Forgive me having been out of touch the last few weeks, a lot happening over here beyond Lost in the Louvre, but with any luck the blog schedule should be back on track!

Here in the US of A today is the day we set aside to appease and apologize to our mothers for the lack of suitable attention throughout the rest of the year.  I could not find any good stories about a forger who was a mother, so I went with a fake portraying one of the more famous mothers in history.

Artist Unknown.  The Virgin and Child with an Angel, 19th century copy.

The Virgin and Child with an Angel has been owned by the National Gallery in London for nearly a century, and was considered to be a fine example of the work of Francisco Francia (1450-1517) a Renaissance painter usually overshadowed by the other more famous artists of his era.  Even in the 1950s, when a finer example of the same subject by Francia was discovered (The Virgin and Child with an Angel now in Pittsburgh, PA), the National Gallery still thought of its’ own version of the painting as an authentic work by Francia.

That is, until 2010, when routine tests to study the layers of the work revealed that the pigments used would only have been available in the nineteenth century, and that even the preparatory sketch was made with graphite, a material unheard of in the Renaissance.  It has now been concluded that this painting is a direct copy in fact of the example in Pittsburgh.

But never fear!  The painting still got a moment to shine before being relegated to storage, and was displayed as part of the eerily well timed exhibition Fakes, Mistakes & Discoveries that took place that same year.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Famous Fake Friday: Ken Perenyi


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First, a little bit of housekeeping: it was pointed out to me that in last week’s entry I never clarified that the Rospigliosi Cup was indeed found among the drawing’s by Vasters thus proving its actual origins as a forgery rather than a Renaissance treasure.  I have corrected the mistake and have solemly sworn to never ever again publish a post that has only been reread for accuracy once.

Ken Perenyi at work in his studio

Coming back to the modern day I thought we might take a look at Ken Perenyi, an American forger who lived in London for 30 years, banging out forgeries of eighteenth and nineteenth century sporting and maritime scenes and hoodwinking many of the auction houses and galleries in the process.

What makes Perenyi interesting is, like any good art forger who does not get caught, that he was determined to fly under the radar.  Unlike your Van Meegeren’s or Hebborn’s of the world, Perenyi deliberately chose second or third tier artists rather than “blue chip” artists on the grounds that the more popular artists are far more heavily documented and scrutinized.  In this way he could forge a Buttersworth (don’t worry, I had to look it up too) or another nondescript artist and get swooped up by the dealers and auction houses without having to provide too much documentation or provenance.  It is a much safer road to take, from the forger’s perspective.

Perenyi is also a traditionalist, not just in choice of subject matter but in technique as well, choosing to doctor the painting itself rather than its documentation.  He would use genuinely antique frames and doctor up auction house stamps and old notes on the back of the canvases to make it look as convincing as the front, since an old nineteenth century English painting with a pristine back would have been a dead giveaway.  He also discovered that using cheaper canvases imported in from China or India still mimic the uneven weave of earlier English canvases.

In his memoirs, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American forger, Perenyi outlines the traditional story of how he became an art forger and recounts some of his greater exploits and successes, including the time his forgery of a still life with birds fetched $100,000.00 at auction.  He also relates some of the tricks of the trade, which I for one am rather excited to read about in order to further my forgery detecting skills.

Eventually he was investigated by the FBI regarding maritime paintings sold to Christie’s and Sotheby’s that were linked to him.  Although he was never charged, Perenyi decided to quit while he was ahead, and now sells his reproductions to local dealers down in Florida, albeit at a fraction of his original prices.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to see a man about a book.

Famous Fake Friday: The Rospigliosi Cup


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In his incredible book False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, Hoving (who, in case you couldn’t tell at this point, is kind of a hero of mine) briefly touches upon how forgeries tend to come in waves.  There will be one huge turning point in any era that causes art to become incredibly popular, and suddenly forgeries pop up like nobody’s business.  The Middle Ages had its relics, the Renaissance had its Classical Greek sculpture, and the nineteenth century had its objets d’art.  Or tchothke, depending on your point of view.

The theory for this is that the nineteenth century was all about the democratization of knowledge, including the arts.  Museums were opened specifically in the hopes of educating the masses, and the emerging middle class spectrum now had expendable income to splurge on extravagances such as fancy Renaissance jeweled boxes, or ridiculously enameled cups that could not possibly be used for anything except to look at.

(image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In 1913 Altman bequeathed the Rospigliosi Cup to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Although the former attribution to Cellini had been debunked in the 1960’s, it was still believed to be of the sixteenth century, by a Dutch craftsman who had worked in Florence.  Of course Hoving got his hands on it during the 1970’s and concluded that something was off.  The sphinx was almost to prim, the execution just a little too perfect and sterile.  His gut told him something was wrong, but he didn’t say anything right away because the cup was considered a treasure of the museum.

A few years later, (1978 to be precise) a young museum assistant at the V&A in London uncovered a huge cache of preparatory sketches and technical designs for objets d’art in the style of the High Renaissance, belong to a well known nineteenth century goldsmith Rheinhold Vasters.  The sketches are very detailed, describing at length the manufacturing requirements for the works involved, and inevitably revealed the true origins of many High Renaissance treasures in internationally known collections, not just at the V&A itself but even the Linsky collection (you know, the guy who ran Swingline staplers).  It was later revealed that Vasters was one of the craftsman employed by Frederic Spitzer, a well known con artist of the nineteenth century who fashioned himself into a powerful art collector that sold almost entirely fakes or knock-offs.

So what can we take away from this story?

1) Hoving is a god walking the Earth as the undisclosed incarnation of Vishnu (again, a fact that has already been established)
2) Never buy something that is supposed to be 400 years old if it doesn’t actually look 400 years old (i.e. lack of bumps, chipped enamel, etc…)
3) Nineteenth century forgeries tend to look a teeny bit more prudish than the originals

NOTE: It was brought to my attention that I never specified whether the Rospigliosi Cup was found among the drawings by Vasters, thus proving Hoving’s gut reaction correct.  Apologies for the confusion.  The cup was indeed found among the drawings, thereby dating it to the nineteenth rather than the sixteenth century.

Famous Fake Friday: The Chernov Family


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I have never claimed to be a fan of modern art, by any stretch of the imagination. I have always found modern art a little too austere and confusing, and involving a lot of obfuscation to cloud a simple piece in an aura of mystery. I mean, half the time it really can look like it was painted by a five year old.

Or a family of art forgers for that matter.

Two weeks ago several articles ran about the Chernov family in Russia, who have been running an elaborate forgery scam for years (most of the articles are rather brief, but here’s a good link to start with). The twin brothers would forge paintings from the Russian Avant-Garde movement (most notably Malevich), while one their daughter’s acted as the seller and agent. They used a classic back story of an ailing and eccentric millionaire far away (Uzbekistan to be precise) and managed to successfully sell over 800 paintings before they were caught.

Nowadays one is unlikely to find contemporary forgeries of Old Masters for example, as the science to detect any inconsistencies has become too advanced.  This is why you are far more likely to find current forgeries of twentieth century art or later, because it has two advantages:

1) Many of the materials that the original artist used are still available

2) The paintings are so simple in design that it makes them easy to replicate


(See what I mean?  I’ve seen videos of elephants paint more complicated designs than this.)

Malevich, Black Square on a White Ground, 1915.  State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow       (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

One of the brothers died before he could be sentenced, but the other brother will serve four years in prison and his daughter Dina will serve two.

Famous Fake Friday: Cobb’s Witches in the Air

I remember once having a conversation with some people about whether or not a fake is ever justified, and if so when.  I of course was in the “when hell freezes over” camp, but my companions kept at it, and eventually came up with the scenario where a fake painting was created to fool a drug lord into thinking he had an original, thus catching him in an attempt to buy stolen goods.  Despite my efforts to then explain to my companions that this would then be called a “copy” and not a fake, and would probably still be an ethical gray area, the debate was never satisfactorily concluded.

Which is why when I came across this article in the Wall Street Journal (apologies if you can’t open it, here’s a link that should easier to access) I felt compelled to include it here as a Famous Fake, or rather Famous Copy.  Primarily because it combines a few of my favorite things: fine art and James McAvoy.

In his latest movie Trance, McAvoy plays a young auctioneer who undergoes hypnotherapy to relocate a painting that was stolen during one of his auctions.  The director, Danny Boyle , decided to use Goya’s Witches in the Air because it was both psychologically gothic and would be easy to snatch due to its size.  It depicts three male witches (go figure) eating one man while another tries to flee the scene with a sheet over his head.  It’s a profoundly disturbing painting and a great example of Goya’s twisted overactive boundless imagination.





Francisco Goya, Witches in the Air, 1798. Museo Prado, Madrid.





Boyle commissioned three copies of the painting, one for presentation, one for “stunt work” and one as a backup.  The artist, Charlie Cobb, went to great lengths to ensure as accurate a representation of the paintings as he could, eventually adding an oxidizing layer and a yellow varnish to age the paintings.  He also had to specially request some of the more toxic (but historically) accurate pigments.  However, it is important to bear in mind that while he did go to great lengths to make his version’s of Goya’s painting as close to the original as possible (which would place them in borderline fake territory considering the level of historical authenticity) they are sanctioned copies of known painting for use in a movie, therefore they are copies.

Have a good weekend, and be sure to check out Trance when it comes out in the States!


Famous Fake Friday: Lothar Malskat

I thought it might be nice to continue with a religious theme of sorts this week, as it is Easter Sunday. Rather than give you a long diatribe about the Easter Bunny being a fake unto itself I decided to give you a far more fascinating forgery, especially in light of the scandal surrounding the botched restoration in Spain from last year.

In 1951, St. Mary’s Cathedral in Lübeck, Germany decided to commission a prestigious restoration firm to clean up the paintings and frescoes within the church in honor of its 700th anniversary. Most the paintings were in dire need of repair, and some were even to faint to be even seen properly, and the finished restoration was deemed a triumph. Everyone marveled at the newly discovered portraits of kings and dignitaries, animals seemingly brought to life in all their realistic detail along the walls of the cathedral. Including the turkey.

Now I know, you are probably wondering, what on earth is so exciting about a turkey? Big deal it’s just a boring old land bound bird that makes appallingly bad sipping whiskey. The big deal is that the frescoes were supposedly from the thirteenth century. However, German fresco painters would not learn about these marvelous creatures until at least the sixteenth century, when explorers finally made it to the New World.  Scholars tried their best to rationalize the presence of the turkeys, they believed so fervently in the murals.  One scholar even came up with a theory involving the Vikings bringing the turkey back with them during their largely overlooked forays to the New World (well, Obelix was always hungry).

the forger himself (image taken from this rather interesting blog entry about authenticity and aesthetics)

A year after the unveiling the real artist came forward and claimed the work as his own: Lothar Malskat, one of the restorers who worked on the project.  After being initially ignored, Malskat, in a brilliant P.R. move, demanded that his lawyer sue not only the company responsible for the restoration, but Malskat personally, thus guaranteeing himself a public arena trial.  During his trial Malskat demonstrated how there really had been no murals prior to his involvement, and how many of the historical portraits had been modeled on twentieth century figures.

Malskat was successfully convicted of fraud and both and he and his employer went to jail.  After he got out Malskat tried to capitalize on his forger prestige, but never quite received his fifteen minutes of fame: apparently using Marlene Dietrich to inspire your forgeries and then exposing your own fraud in a public show trial arena only worked for Van Meegeren.

For those of you who celebrate, Happy Good Friday!

example of Malskat’s work in the Cathedral, now in the Falschermuseum in Vienna (image from here)