It’s the tricks of the art forgery: from wearing 18th-century smocks (fibers in the paint) to aging paintings in front of wood-burning stoves for weeks (cracks) or smoking 60 cigarettes a day next to a work of art (patina).
And they’ve been shared with best-selling crime writer Peter James for his forthcoming novel about the world of fakes and fakes, who has gotten a glimpse of some of counterfeiters’ more dubious talents.
One scammer confided that before the video surveillance he visited mansions open to the public, photographed and copied high-quality paintings – before returning to exchange them.
James said: “If you walk around some of these properties you will see fakes that date back 30 years.”
Another forger revealed that a museum curator loaned him an 18th-century smock from his collection so he could wear it while forging a 1770s painting — to ensure no polluting fibers of modern clothing got into the paint fell.
James said, “He told me, ‘I would also incorporate some of the fibers from the smock into the paint so that if it is ever carbon dated it will appear as 1770 fibers.'”
James is best known for creating Det Supt Roy Grace in one of the world’s most popular detective series, selling 21 million copies, translated into 37 languages and topping the bestseller charts 19 times. In pursuit of realism, he has put his own life in danger, joining the police force in raids and investigations to confront burglars and drug dealers that have inspired his fictional characters.
Now he’s weaved some of the real-life stories of the forgers into his new novel, Picture You Dead, out September 29. It reflects the efforts art scammers go to to ensure their fakes go undetected.
For his main character – Daniel Hegarty, “rightfully considered the best art forger in the world” – he found inspiration from former master forger David Henty, who gave him exceptional insight into art crime and showed him how to paint a perfect forgery at the Recreation of a landscape by the 18th-century French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
James said: “I had asked him if you could fake a fragonard so well that the world’s leading fragonard expert couldn’t tell it was a fake? He said ‘yes’ and he told me how he would do it.”
He added: “In the book I invented that Fragonard painted four paintings of the Four Seasons … long lost since the French Revolution. He actually painted me a picture of what I described.”
Through an antiques dealer friend in France, Henty bought a religious painting from the period for a few thousand pounds. He scrubbed the original, added a lead white base, and created all his own colors, just like Fragonard.
To achieve small cracks in the paint, called craquelure, he placed the painting in front of a wood-burning stove for two weeks. To recreate an aged patina, he left it with a friend who smokes 60 cigarettes a day for two months.
James said: “Everyone I show his work to is completely amazed. He can copy so many different artists, from Fragonard to Caravaggio. You are simply stunning.”
He recalled Henty giving him a Lowry fake that fooled a high-profile expert, who was shocked when he was told it wasn’t real: “He said, ‘Incredible, I wouldn’t have noticed’.”
James was introduced to Henty by the police officer who arrested him for forging British passports in the 1990s. Two spelling mistakes gave him away and Henty was sentenced to five years in prison.
In prison, he discovered his talent for copying Modigliani and Picasso, among others, and eventually sold his fakes through auction houses, dealers, and online.
Some were painted from scratch, others were “improved” smaller paintings.
He told the Guardian he bought a 1930s still life at a market for £3, upgraded it to a 1934 painting by Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell and signed it ‘VB34’: ‘I made £1,000 and then seen it in a London gallery for £7,000 as certified Vanessa Bell.”
He scoffed at so-called experts who first look at the signature and then the art. Sometimes he would enhance a painting by adding a brass plaque with an evocative name: “It’s like a magnet, they can’t take their eyes off this plaque.”
He was exposed in 2014 after revealing he had painted a Picasso and now has a legitimate career as a copyist. “I’ve got a Mona Lisa downstairs,” he said.
When asked if deceiving the experts was satisfying, he referred to it as “professional pride,” adding, “It’s not about the money.”
He recalled a dealer who bought many fakes, believing they were stolen originals, telling him, “I’ll have as many as you can get.”
He compared the unregulated art world to the Wild West and said others knew they were fake: “There’s so much money in the art world that greed runs rampant.”