Hebborn’s upbringing combined his astonishing artistic talent with his limitless capacity for mischief. At the age of eight, he was unjustly accused of playing with fire—he said he responded to this allegation by actually setting his school ablaze. He was accepted to the Royal Academy of Arts and even earned the Rome Prize in engraving. He picked up additional skills in imitating the
by working as an art restorer after he graduated.
Hebborn later opened Pannini Galleries with his longtime romantic partner Graham Smith and developed personal and professional relationships with a number of key figures in the London art world, including art dealer Hans Calmann, and Christopher White, a specialist in Old Master drawings at the oldest commercial gallery in the world, Colnaghi. Hebborn famously befriended Anthony Blunt, an art advisor for Queen Elizabeth II who later revealed himself to be a Russian spy (though Hebborn wrote in his memoir that he was unaware of Blunt’s spying activities). The year after he opened the gallery, Hebborn moved to Italy.
Insisting he was not a criminal, Hebborn subscribed to his own moral code. He let experts make their own opinions about his work without input from him, and he would charge similar prices for his Old Master forgeries as he did for the works he made under his own name.
“There is nothing criminal in making a drawing in any style one wishes, nor is there anything criminal about asking an expert what he thinks of it,” Hebborn wrote in his 1991 memoir.
Refusing to be remorseful for his misdeeds, Hebborn believed the art world itself was to blame. He looked down on art experts who claimed to be able to tell whether a work was genuine based on the style, when it’s difficult enough to sniff out a fake using sophisticated scientific analysis. As a master draftsman, he believed the ability to draw was crucial in being able to evaluate a work’s authenticity.
A forger’s downfall
The master forger’s attention to detail proved to be his own undoing. Many of his fakes passed muster due to the fact that he used paper from the time period of the artists he was emulating; he similarly mixed pigments himself from materials that would have been available in earlier eras. Konrad Oberhuber, a curator at the National Gallery of Art
in Washington, D.C., noticed two drawings from Colnaghi said to be done by different artists had identical artistic styles and were done on the same type of paper. He then alerted a curator at the Morgan Library & Museum, who noticed similar issues with a drawing there. Colnaghi then issued a statement about concerns over Old Master drawings purchased from Hebborn, though the gallery did not publicly name him.
In a letter to The Times of London in 1980, Hebborn wrote: “Instead of stressing how clever the possible imitations are, it might be more rewarding to examine the abilities of those who made the attributions and on whose advice large sums of public money were spent.”
The Colnaghi incident didn’t slow Hebborn down; he claimed to have made another 500 forgeries after he was exposed, and sold them to dealers who were perfectly willing to accept works of questionable provenance. In some cases, these dealers even asked him to “find” Old Master drawings, which he forged and then sold to them.
“I think you might possibly find an honest man,” Hebborn said in the BBC documentary. “I just don’t think you’ll find an honest man who’s also a dealer.”