Tthese are the tricks of the art forger’s trade: from wearing 18th century aprons (fibers in the paint) to aging paintings for weeks in front of wood stoves (cracks) or having someone smoke 60 cigarettes a day along with a work of art (patina).
And they were shared with best-selling crime writer Peter James for his forthcoming novel about the world of forgeries and forgeries, which gained insight into some of the forgers’ more dubious talents.
One fraudster confided to CCTV that he had previously visited stately homes open to the public, photographed valuable paintings and copied them – before returning to exchange them.
James said: “Look at some of these properties and you’ll see fakes from 30 years ago.”
Another forger revealed that a museum curator lent him an 18th-century apron from his collection to wear while forging a 1770 painting – ensuring no incriminating fibers from modern clothing would get into the paint .
James said: “He said to me, ‘I’m going to put some of the fibers from the robe in the paint as well, so that if it’s ever carbon dated, it shows up as a 1770 fiber.’
James is best known for creating Det Supt Roy Grace in what has become one of the world’s most popular detective series, selling 21 million copies, being translated into 37 languages and topping the bestseller charts 19 times. In pursuit of realism, his research involved putting his own life at risk and joining the police on raids and investigations, coming face-to-face with the thieves and drug dealers who inspired his fictional characters.
Now he has woven some of the true stories of the forgers into his new novel Picture You Dead, will be published on September 29. It reflects the lengths to which art fraudsters go to ensure that their forgeries are undetected.
For his central character – Daniel Hegarty, “rightfully regarded as the world’s best art forger” – he found inspiration in former master forger David Henty, who gave him incredible insight into art crime, showing him how to paint a perfect forgery in a recreation of a landscape by the 18th-century French artist Jean-Honore Fragonard.
James said: “I would ask him, can you fake a Fragonard so well that the number one Fragonard expert in the world can’t tell it’s a fake? He said yes and told me how he was going to do it.
He added: “In the book I made up that Fragonard did four paintings of the Four Seasons… long lost after the French Revolution. From what I described, he basically painted a picture for me.
Through an antiques dealer friend from France, Henty bought a religious painting from this period for several thousand pounds. He erased the original, added a base of lead white and created all his own paints, just like Fragonard.
To achieve small cracks in the paint, called craquelure, he placed the painting in front of a wood stove for two weeks. To recreate an aged patina, he left it for two months at the home of a friend who smoked 60 cigarettes a day.
James said: “Everyone I show his work to is absolutely amazed. He could copy so many different artists, from Fragonard to Caravaggio. They are simply stunning.”
He recalls Henty giving him a Lowry fake, which had duped a senior expert who was shocked to be told it wasn’t real: “He said ‘unbelievable, I wouldn’t have noticed that.’
James was introduced to Henty by the policeman who arrested him in the 1990s for forging British passports. Two typos gave him away and Henty was sentenced to five years in prison.
In prison, he discovered a talent for copying Modigliani and Picasso, among others, eventually selling his forgeries through auction houses, dealers and online.
Some were painted from scratch, others were “enhanced” smaller paintings.
He told the Guardian he bought a 1930 still life at a flea market for £3, upgrading it to a 1934 painting by Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, signing it ‘VB34’: ‘I made £1,000 and then saw it in London gallery for £7000 as certified Vanessa Bell.
He scoffed at so-called experts who look at the signature first and then the art. Sometimes he enhanced a picture by attaching a brass plate with an impressive name: “It’s like a magnet, they can’t take their eyes off this plate.”
He was exposed in 2014 after revealing that he painted a Picasso and now has a legitimate career as a copyist. “I have the Mona Lisa downstairs,” he said.
Asked if the pundits’ fallacy was satisfactory, he spoke of “professional pride”, adding: “It’s not about the money”.
He recalled a dealer buying many fakes, believing them to be stolen originals, and telling him, “I’ll take as much as you can take.”
Comparing the unregulated art world to the wild west, he said others knew they were fakes: “There’s so much money in the art world that greed takes over.”