Knockin’ on Hebborns Door

A new faker king has been crowned.

Mama take this badge off of me
I can’t use it any more.
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark for me to see
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heavens door.*

On 20 Oct the Mail on Sunday gave over two pages to the life and work of Eric Hebborn, a man whose work, according to the report, has consisted of ‘faking almost every important European painter from the 14th to the 20th century’.

Gallery directors and collectors may have been looking at some of their drawings by Poussin, Gainsborough and Degas with new eyes. It is claimed that Hebborn’s work is hanging under many different names in major museums in New York, UK and elsewhere; in private collections, and has been traded by Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

The article was typical gutter-press exposure. It seemed an expose of the ‘foolish’ art experts, as much as the ‘genial rogue’ Hebborn – it’s all a bit of a giggle, just rewards for the pretensions of the art market. There may be some justice in that point of view, but if you have spent a large sum of money, or public money, for something which is not what it seems, or if you’ve advised someone to do the same, what can be done about it?

Could the police prosecute Hebborn for dishonest deception – he appears to have made money by deceiving people into thinking they were buying something they were not? This was the same charge brought against the late Tom Keating. His case collapsed because he never signed the works as being by someone else, though he did admit producing works in the style of the Old Masters, but the prosecution could not prove that he had ever asserted that they were originals; either by what he said or did. This does not seem to be the case with Hebborn. According to the Mail on Sunday, he brought 18th century paper and ink, then produced a ‘Piranesi’ which was then sold to the National Gallery of Denmark for £14,000. The newspaper relates how in 1985 a dealer arrived on Hebborn’s door, asking if he could ‘find’ 100 Old Master drawings. Apparently, Hebborn said there might be a problem in locating so many but the dealer replied: ‘Oh, I can provide you with plenty of paper’. What happened next is unclear. But the story jumps to the 30 drawings which the dealer bought from Hebborn at £750 each. Last year, it is claimed, a ‘Castiglione’ from that set of drawings was sold at Christie’s for £9,350. Was Hebborn knowingly involved in a deception?

The truth may well be that the deception is contained in the newspaper story, and his autobiography. Drawn to Trouble. Is he a double agent; are the works in fact authentic; and is the story simply a tall tale told to sell more copies of his book? If he were to be prosecuted for criminal deception, he could call as his witnesses the art experts – Brian Sewell, for example, has been named as one, who accepted on behalf of Christies, an Augustus John which Hebborn claims is his work. However those same art experts might also sue Hebborn for defamation – he is after all saying that their reputations are worthless in a business where reputation is all.

Moreover, people and institutions who bought works on the advice of the experts, named by Hebborn, might sue them for giving negligent advice. This would involve them proving that the experts whose advice they sought and acted upon had not taken all reasonable steps to authenticate the works in question.

If legal action were to be taken based upon Hebborn’s assertions or the publication and acceptance of them, the courts would be faced with an intriguing issue to decide – they would have to ask “What is the true provenance of the drawings which Hebborn claims were made by him?” Are they by him or are they originals? Is his story a money-spinning hoax? If they are by him is he guilty of dishonest deception? Did he truly deceive the art experts or were they negligent in their methods of authenticating the works ? Should the issue of what a work of art, and if so, is it original be a legal one?

The Mail on Sunday’s story is gleefully written, not just about an apparent artistic hoax, but as an expose of the values of the art market as a whole, which that journal naturally despises – it seems – in any event. The emperor’s new clothes?

This con doesn’t matter because they’re all a bunch of con artists anyway. Leaving the law and the gutter-press aside for a moment, surely it matter’s to everyone whether the thing they are buying is what they think it is, and worth the price they are willing to pay for it.

Does it not matter to artists trying to produce meaningful work that their authorship has been falsely attributed? Whether we like it or not artists are taken for and valued by the work they have produced; they prefer to be judged by their own work and not by a hotchpotch of fakes, fudges or copies. There is a simple and effective way that contemporary artists can protect themselves. They should write their own provenances, before the fakers, forensic and art experts and courts of the future do it for them. They can do this by documenting their work – writing down a description of its dimensions, materials, when it was made, how it was made, and taking photographs of it. When the work passes from the artist’s possession, the new owners should be given a copy of the artist’s original provenance, with the new ownership clearly marked on it, and this should be updated whenever the work changes hands again. Artists should also keep the original document and update it wherever possible – just like the title deeds to freehold property.

If more individual artists took up this practice, as many already do, it would eventually become difficult, perhaps impossible, for anyone without the correct documentation to claim that a work was made by a particular artist. It would also resolve, perhaps avoid, conflicts over ownership, since it could be safely asserted that work clearly belonged to the original artist until the documents proved otherwise. Furthermore, such documentation could clarify copyright and moral rights, the subject of so many disputes because there is no documentation and/or the artist is deceased. In these ways, not to have the written provenance of a work by a particular artist in future would be so unusual as to make anyone offered it for purchase suspicious – either of it being an original, or of it being stolen. Individual artists could gain some protection in these ways, but if the practice became universal – perhaps even a legal requirement – present and future generations of artists, dealers, collectors, and historians would be saved from themselves. Perhaps we would all be saved from the likes of the Mail on Sunday.

*© 1973/4 Ram’s Horn Music.

© Henry Lydiate & James Odling-Smee 1991

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.