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The Hoax Files: The Truth Isn't Out There

The Art of Deception

by Ann Marie Imbornoni

The Accidental Artist

One of the greatest master forgers of all time was the Italian sculptor Alceo Dossena (1878-1936). Dossena did not deliberately set out to copy ancient works, but he was so adept at using the techniques of ancient Greek, medieval, and Renaissance sculptors that many of his works were bought up by numerous collectors and curators who were convinced that they were authentic antiquities. Two of his relief sculptures, both entitled Virgin and Child, are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, in a separate gallery reserved for museum-quality forgeries.

True Confessions

A Dutch painter, Hans van Meegeren (1889-1947), is probably the best-known forger of the 20th century. At the end of World War II an Allied art commission discovered a previously unknown work of Jan Vermeer in the collection of Nazi leader Hermann Goering. The sale of the painting was traced to van Meegeren, who was charged in May 1945 with selling a Dutch national treasure and collaborating with the enemy. Van Meegeren subsequently confessed to having forged the painting, a less serious offense, and to prove it he painted another "Vermeer" in his prison cell. In all, van Meegeren is known to have produced 14 forgeries of works by Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch, several of which had been proclaimed masterpieces by scholars before it was learned they were fakes.

Six Degrees of Forgery

The forger Elmyr de Hory (1905-1976?) is remembered now largely thanks to the 1975 film by Orson Welles entitled F is for Fake. Elmyr, who credited himself with having painted nearly one thousand of the classics of modern art, including works by artists such as Matisse, Modigliani, and Picasso, was exposed as a forger in 1968 and imprisoned briefly by the Spanish on the island of Ibiza. Welles's film turns out to be a tribute to fakery, dealing mostly with Elmyr's biographer Clifford Irving, who would go on to write a fake biography of Howard Hughes, and touching on Welles's own War of the Worlds hoax in the 1930s.

Old Master Disaster

Eric Hebborn (1934-1996) attended the Royal Academy of Art in London and worked for a picture restorer before going into business for himself as a forger. By his own account Hebborn produced approximately one thousand drawings, allegedly by artists such as Rubens, Bruegel, Van Dyck, Poussin, and Tiepolo, which were sold through respected auction houses into numerous prestigious collections, a testimony to Hebborn's abundant talent. His downfall came in 1978 after a London dealer realized that drawings purchased from Hebborn were fakes. Hebborn published a memoir, Drawn to Trouble, and The Art Forger's Handbook. He was found murdered in Rome in Jan. 1996.

A Recent Case

The mastermind behind Britain's most recent case of art forgery is John Drewe (b. 1948). Over a period of about 10 years, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Drewe arranged phony documentation for paintings by a number of world famous artists, including Marc Chagall, Alberto Giacometti, and Ben Nicholson. In reality these works had been been painted by Drewe's accomplice, John Myatt (b.1945), who eventually testified against Drewe. In Feb. 1999 Drewe was sentenced to 6 years in jail; Myatt was sentenced to 1 year. Investigators say they have recovered 60 of the fakes, but another 140 remain at large.






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