Old Masters Academy

Fakes, Frauds, and Fake Fakers

Some counterfeiters try to enter the “soul and mind of the artist.” Some delight in the chemistry of baking paint and creating wormholes. Some start with real pictures and then “restore” them until they look as if they’re by a different artist. From ancient vases to conceptual art—if someone made it, someone else has tried to bamboozle the world with a copy.

by Milton Esterow


Icilio Federico Joni, known as the prince of Sienese fakers, ca. 1909. He used cigar stumps to make glaze for gold.

In Italy,” Salvatore Casillo, who founded the University of Salerno’s Museum of Fakes, recently commented, “if you’re a good enough counterfeiter, you eventually get your own show.”

Casillo was right. Several good-enough counterfeiters have recently had their own shows.

Icilio Federico Joni, who was known as the prince of Sienese fakers and specialized in Renaissance paintings until he died in 1946, got his own show last year. He was the star of “Authentic Fakes” at the Santa Maria della Scala museum in Siena, where he is considered something of a folk hero.

Joni was so good that Old Master experts have called him one of the art world’s most spectacularly inventive forgers.

Meanwhile, Joseph van der Veken, who died in 1964, got his own show, “Fake/Not Fake: Restorations, Reconstructions, Forgeries,” which ended last February at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, Belgium.

“From what we can tell, he always said he never put anything on the market that was a fake,” Till-Holger Borchert, the museum’s conservator, said in a telephone interview. “On the other hand, things came on the market and were sold as a Bouts or Massys or Memling or others.”

And John Myatt, a convicted forger who once said, “You wake up in the morning and you just feel like today is a Picasso day, today is a Monet day,” spent four months in jail and then exhibited his fakes at a gallery in England in 2003. By then the forgeries contained a microchip so that they could not be mistaken for the real thing. Prices for the fakes ranged from around $1,000 to $10,000. He has used K-Y jelly to add body to his brushstrokes.

Even the infamous Vermeer forger, Han van Meegeren, who died in 1947, got a show of his works, both real and fake, at the Kunsthalle in Rotterdam in 1996. There is also a market for van Meegeren fakes. His “Vermeer” Last Supper sold at auction for $88,000 some years ago.

The late Eric Hebborn, another gifted forger who bamboozled the art world for years, has not yet had a show, but his Art Forger’s Handbook has just been published in paperback by Overlook Press.

Hebborn, who has been called a “fake faker,” made drawings that he attributed to Brueghel, Piranesi, Pontormo, and Corot, among many others.

He was so good that Eugene Victor Thaw, the retired art dealer, collector, and philanthropist, told Ronald D. Spencer in his book The Expert Versus the Object that Hebborn’s career was “still troubling the art market.”

Other forgers are also still troubling the art market, judging by an ARTnews survey of dealers, auction-house officials, museum curators, conservators, scholars, and former agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Scotland Yard.

Colonel Ferdinando Musella, one of the world’s top hunters of art forgers and art thieves, said in a telephone interview in Rome, that the “faking of contemporary paintings has increased, especially prints.”

Musella is operations chief of Italy’s investigative squad officially known as Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, or Command for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.

Despite the increase in forgeries, Thaw and other art observers say that things have improved. “The situation is much better than it has been,” he said.

“With Old Master paintings, it’s just about over,” says Marco Grassi, a New York conservator who has studios in New York and Paris. “Forgery is much more difficult because we have so many tools to discover them. (See article page 106.) It’s impossible to imagine a Picasso painting coming out of the woodwork that nobody has ever seen. It’s inconceivable that someone would get away with it.”

Among those who fooled some people recently but did not get away with it was a New York dealer who bought authentic pieces by such artists as Chagall, Renoir, and Gauguin at auction and then sold forgeries of them. For example, according to the FBI, the dealer bought an authentic Chagall in 1990 for $312,000, had it copied by a forger, and sold the forgery for $514,000 in 1993. Five years later he sold the authentic Chagall for $340,000.

Less expensive work came from a man in Marseille, who made crude installations of works by the sculptor César by beating vintage cars with a hammer and jumping on coffee machines.

Last year in Florence Musella’s squad seized hundreds of fake paintings, including some purportedly by Andy Warhol, which were offered for sale by a television station. He said that last August the Carabinieri found thousands of fake works, mainly prints, all over Italy, of Warhol, Mario Schifano, Enrico Baj, and others.

Casillo, of the Museum of Fakes, says that the forged works he has dealt with include “Miró in particular, then Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Dalí, Hartung, Appel, Warhol, and, most recently, Joseph Kosuth.” Among the Italian artists most commonly faked, he says, are Schifano, Carlo Carrà, and Lucio Fontana.

In the past seven years Musella’s squad has sequestered more than 60,000 fakes—many of contemporary Italian artworks. “Bulgaria,” Musella says, “has become a source for counterfeit ancient Greek and Roman coins.”

Musella and Casillo work closely. Casillo has been appointed judicial custodian of seized fakes of all kinds. He has vaults at the University of Salerno, where evidence is held for the trials of forgers.

Casillo is a sociologist who founded the museum, an adjunct of the university and its center for the study of forgery, 14 years ago. He is a professor and lectures on industrial sociology. He initially became interested in faking and counterfeiting in the business world.

One of Italy’s more prolific fakers was Icilio Federico Joni. He began his career in the late 19th century by making imitations of the tavolette de Biccherna, wood covers used for the Sienese tax accounts that were made from the mid-13th to the end of the 17th centuries.

Joni was a flamboyant character whose autobiography, Affairs of a Painter, published in 1936, would make a stunning Hollywood epic. How much of it is fiction is not known, but it makes for entertaining reading.

Besides being a painter, gilder, and restorer with assorted mistresses, he played the mandolin, produced pageants, and kept falcons in his studio, which was also a gymnasium equipped with a set of dumbbells. In his book he offered helpful hints, such as “A good glaze for the gold was also produced by keeping the stump of Tuscan cigars in water for several days.”

The book was reissued in English and Italian for “Authentic Fakes,” with an introduction by the show’s curator, Gianni Mazzoni, who is a professor of the history of modern art at the University of Siena.

Although Joni was arrested a few times for altercations—he obviously had a temper—he was never accused of forgery. Why?

“He only made original work that seemed to be old, and as they went from dealer to dealer, they became old,” Mazzoni said in a telephone interview.

“I’ve been doing research on Joni for 20 years,” Mazzoni says. “Joni had three children. One of them was named Fiorenzo, an artist who painted on glass. Fiorenzo was born in 1918, the day his father sold a forgery in the style of Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, a Renaissance artist from Umbria.”

One of Joni’s most famous productions was Madonna and Child with Angels, which was acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in a bequest of James Parmalee as a work of Sano di Pietro (1406–81). It was discovered to be a forgery in 1948. The museum found that the cracquelure of the Madonna’s blue coat was produced by baking, which was a favorite method of Joni’s, and that modern nails secured the framing elements of the panel.

Is there a monument to Joni in Siena? “No,” says Mazzoni, “and we have no streets named after him, but it could possibly happen in the future.”

There are no streets named after Joseph van der Veken in Belgium, but, like Joni, he is considered a supremely gifted restorer. David Bull, a New York conservator and former chairman of painting conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., says van der Veken’s technique was at times quite miraculous. Was he a faker of 15th- and 16th-century Flemish art? The late Max Friedlander, the legendary art historian, thought so. But not everyone agrees. The recent show at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, “Fake/Not Fake,” did not give a yes or no answer. There were eight paintings and 25 drawings in the show.

“One got the impression that he not only was a good conservator but had a keen eye on how to promote himself,” says Borchert, who curated the exhibition. “His image was that of a handy craftsman who was a master at restoring primitives.

“Our point is that it is quite difficult to define authentication. We see old works restored to an extent that the original appears to have been hampered. We are looking at work that is more the work of the restorer than the artist. We explore the twilight zone between falsification on the one hand and modern-day restoration on the other hand.

“The degree of restoration made it a problem to determine whether the work is original or fake. Some works indicated 20 percent restoration, others 80 percent. At what percentage is it a fake? That’s a good question. Tell me.”

Any conclusion to the show? “We have put the question to the public: What you are looking at is not necessarily what you think you are looking at.” Borchert says that after the panel of the Just Judges of van Eyck’s masterpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, painted in the early 15th century, was stolen in 1934, van der Veken volunteered to paint a copy. “It’s extraordinary what he did,” said David Bull. “I was told that cracks had formed in the paint and that paint was lifting from the surface in exactly the same way as the original.”

If there is ambiguity about van der Veken, there is none about Eric Hebborn, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1996.

Hebborn was a rogue who had no limits to his skulduggery. He produced more than a thousand forgeries—at least that’s what he boasted.

Charley Hill, a private investigator based in London and formerly a top member of Scotland Yard’s art-and-antiques theft squad, recommended contacting Leo Stevenson for comment on Hebborn. Stevenson, he says, “is a well-known copyist who makes fakes for people who want reproductions on the wall while the real things are hidden away. Even the Foreign Office in London has bought things from him to protect their assets.”

Stevenson, who lives in London, says he doesn’t do copies but “inventions in the style of Old Masters.”

“I once met Hebborn,” Stevenson said. “He was a strange man. It didn’t help that we were both drunk. I was not impressed with the book. I think he was deliberately trying to mislead people because he didn’t want them to tread into his territory. He was a talented draftsman. He writes about his techniques, but some of them don’t make sense.

“Hebborn was wrong to say that flake white should be used by forgers for Old Masters. Flake white is normally a mixture of lead carbonate and zinc-oxide whites. Zinc oxide was not commonly used before the 20th century, and its use in oil paint is completely unknown before about 1830, so if a fake that purported to be from before this date contained this pigment, someone should be arrested.

“I think he was deliberately misleading in order to protect his own nefarious activities. He keeps hinting that he sold many major works to major galleries and museums, but he doesn’t say who or where or what. Either he was really very naughty and wanted to cover his tracks or he was a fake faker. My hunch? The latter.

“He left out all sorts of tricks forgers use, little technical things. If you want to make a canvas brittle, you bake it—80 degrees centigrade—for a day. You can spray it with vinegar. Also, you can apply urine to the surface, which will accelerate deterioration of the surface to make the painting look older.”

Another fake faker was a 19th-century Belgian artist named A. Beers. According to art historian Hans Tietze, because Beers didn’t have time to fill all his commissions, he had inferior artists make copies of his paintings. “When they were well done he signed them himself,” Tietze wrote. “When they were not, he had the copyists sign them with his name. Thus, if they aroused suspicion, he could disown them. By this procedure, Beers himself helped to forge genuine—and even false—Beers.”

When forger David Stein was sent to prison years ago, Joseph Stone, the New York City assistant district attorney who prosecuted him, said, “What I find so pathetic about the Stein case and other fraud cases is that while the victims relied on the false representations of the defendant, the victims were also blinded by the inexorable craving for bargains in art. Their lack of knowledge in what they were purchasing, their unwillingness to seek expert advice, their gullibility made them easy victims of Stein, who had become an overnight wonder in the art world.”

This article has been abridged for the ARTnews Web site.

Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews. Additional reporting by Milton Gendel in Rome and Ken Bensinger in Mexico City.

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