Beginning a career as a graduate from the Royal Academy of Arts, and with the Rome Prize in engraving in tow, Eric Hebborn established an early art career that could have proven to be a lucrative and legal affair. Upon graduation, Hebborn worked in restoring the works of Old Masters. However, over the course of numerous art forgeries, he sought to deceive the art world, targeting art experts and fooling them at their own game.
Caught in the midst of a struggling art market during the 20th Century, Hebborn harboured reservations about the growing prevalence of modern art and found his talents better accustomed to the works of Baroque and Renaissance artists. In particular, he grew wary of untrustworthy art dealers and experts and felt that his artistic talents were underused in the modernist tendencies of mid-20th Century art.
As a result, Hebborn opened his own art business, Pannini Galleries, and forged over, according to a personal estimate, 1,000 works of art by notable artists like Brueghel and Van Dyck. Considered to be one of the “greatest art forger[s] of modern times”, Hebborn created works that are still in circulation despite being fakes. His paintings continue to be passed through large auction houses and in international galleries like the National Gallery of Denmark and the Morgan Library and Museum.
Hebborn never sold to art amateurs, instead targeting art dealers and experts that were well equipped in spotting forgeries. Hebborn created this personal moral code after discovering just how easy works could be forged, especially after restoring works by the Old Masters upon graduating from the Royal Academy. In fact, the forger himself said in 1991 that, “only the experts are worth fooling. The greater the expert, the greater the satisfaction in deceiving him”. All in all, Hebborn made over US$35 (GBP£26) million from his forged works.
However, in 1978, curators from major museums in the United States began to notice similarities among certain pieces in the museum’s collections. Upon looking at the background of the works, all were traced back to Hebborn.
Despite an obvious connection with fraudulent works, Hebborn was never charged with forgery in the United Kingdom or Italy, the location of Pannini Gallery. To this day, museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum are debating whether works in collections are genuine or forged works attributed to Hebborn.
In terms of legal issues, however, Hebborn was never charged and has refused to note attributions for the works he has sold. In other words, Hebborn never fully discloses just who the artist of a particular work is, protecting his name if the work was ever discovered to be forged as well as poking at the art expert purchasing the work in order to decipher the master artist.
Interestingly enough, authorities have failed to prosecute Hebborn on multiple occasions, claiming a lack of evidence. This absence of legal foundation for prosecuting Hebborn has surprised many as Hebborn has openly confessed to his habit of forgery in two major autobiographies and during appearances on television. He also contributed to another publication, The Art Forger’s Handbook, where he offered tips on discovering fake works of art while detailing his forgery experience.
Just a few weeks after the publication of this handbook in 1996, Hebborn was found dead, lying in a street in Trastevere, Rome. Hebborn sustained a lethal head wound before shortly dying in a nearby hospital. The murder has yet to be solved.
However, close friends of Hebborn report that the artist worked closely with the mafia towards the end of his career due to his desperation for money. Many believe that he was murdered, and because his murder was never solved or investigated, it raised suspicions that the mafia was involved.
Hebborn, though notoriously known as an art restorer turned forger, raised multiple legal questions. In terms of his forged art, while sold without the name of an artist, the pieces were assigned an artist’s name by an art expert, perhaps an arbitrary decision. The works in question then featured in auction houses or were exhibited in museums throughout the world. However, while Hebborn may have protected himself legally without mentioning the name of a particular artist, the art expert or auction house who first purchased the art from Hebborn may be liable to legal repercussions relating to fraud. Hebborn questions whether he is at legal fault for fraud, or the art expert in charge of assigning an artist to the works. In addition, the unsolved murder of Hebborn highlights possible corruption issues in the local police as possible mafia ties were exposed only after his death.
All in all, art forgery is a craft that raises moral issues that transcend those of legal matters, like fraud. But, according to Hebborn, forged works "should be enjoyed for what they are rather than questioned for what they are not”. Maybe Hebborn is not simply challenging the art world and the museum industry to recognise the forged works, but rather is celebrating his paintings for what they are: masterfully reconstructed works of art by the Old Masters.