Eric Hebborn's work has fooled the
at Sotheby's and Christie's and now hangs in many of the most famous art collections in the world

(From "Drawn to Trouble", an autobiography by Eric Hebborn, 1991)

False Piranesi drawing bought
the National Gallery of Denmark

The Englishman Eric Hebborn pulled the legs on art experts all over the world
 including Denmark’s most
famous museum.

Photo: Janice Berthelsen

“I earned millions doing falsifications from famous painters,” Eric Hebborn, living in Rom, was quoted for saying to the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet on the 21. of  October 1991. The cause was from his book “Drawn to trouble” which Hebborn had just published. In his book he claimed to have painted about 5.000 forgeries, among these a drawing, which an American art dealer had sold to Kobberstiksamlingen at Statens Museum for Kunst (the National Museum of Denmark) in 1969 for £ 14.000 (280.000 Danish Crowns) as a genuine drawing done by the lithographic artist Giovanni Piranesi (1720-78).

The day after, the same newspaper could assure the Danish people that the drawing was indeed genuine. It’s estimated value was no longer 280.000 Danish Crowns but rather 50 millions! At that time the director of art Villads Villadsen had no doubt whatsoever that the drawing was genuine. The same was true to Chris Fischer, Kobberstiksamlingen, while the leader at that particular time Eric Fischer, who bought the drawing, kept silence.

The disreputable drawing, which cheated art experts all over the world.
Click the drawing to see it together with it’s original size.

For years to come Danish people of art had full confidence that the drawing was genuine. The under designed was the only person within the frame of art, probably the only person in the whole world, who supported Hebborn and spoke for him talking his case. This happened in huges articles in the Danish Newspaper Jyllands-Posten and in Kunstavisen, the most famous magazine in Denmark devoted to art.

The drawing in question was put forward as a forecast work from the hand of Piranesi’s famous etching from the year 1750: “From a great harbour in Roman history.” The motives were identical. Nobody knew that a primarily work existed, but as the drawing in question in 1969 was offered to Kobberstiksamlingen, it was happily accepted, and the Museum paid more than a quarter of a Million Danish Crowns. And proud as the Pope they were too.

Comparing the original drawing with the falsification it is indeed the same motive, but here all comparison stops. While all experts within the works of Piranesi all over the world had guaranteed the genuineness of the drawing (including the leading Andrew Robison) had given proof of genuineness, before it was sold in Copenhagen, it showed up that the Getty Museum in California had bought a Piranesi drawing with the very same motive back in 1988, but not published it until 1991. This drawing gave full proof that the other one was not a Piranesi. The Getty Museum was so close to the etching that the other one felt through completely. There were light-years of difference in close-up comparison between the two. Chris Fischer still continued backing up his picture, and furthermore he claimed that the Getty-drawing supported the genuineness in that residing in Kobberstiksamlingen. A completely outrageous allegation!

Chris Fischer ended his debate in Kunstavisen No 1/1992 in the following ironic manner: “The hunt for scandal and good stories have given world-wide fame to Kobberstiksamlingen’s most beautiful drawings and have cemented consciousness in public’s mind. “Come! Be part of the hunting, we have a lot of genuine drawings signed false names.”

The under designed remarked, at the end of my article in Kunstavisen next to the mentioned sentence: “I believe that the whole case ends up so that Chris Fischer and his predecessor must swallow the bitter pill and recognize there mistakes and realize that the drawing which was bought by Carlsbergfondet in 1969 to Kobberstiksamlingen for more than a quarter of a million kroner is not a true Piranesi from midst 18. century but instead it’s a genuine Hebborn from the midst twenties.

Thereafter a long time passed by, two to three years before Chris Fischer had to admit that the drawing was not a Piranesi. But he still refuses to realize that it’s a Hebborn-drawing. And the very engaging Fischer does of course this because he will under no circumstances be considered a fool toward an English artist who pulled the legs at the very same Museum where Fischer is still the leading figure. “It’s another artist” says Fischer, “but I cannot tell you who that might be.”

On January 11, 1996 Eric Hebborn was found dead in a street in Rom nearly 62 years old. It has been told, that he was murdered. On that account Fischers hope to make Hebborn do a similar drawing fell to the ground. It should serve as a proof. Hebborn had promised that to Fischer, and he made the same promise towards Kunstavisen and in the autumn 1994. The deal was in place. Several telephone conversations between under designed and Hebborn had put an agreement in place and two air tickets were reserved for Rom, as it suddenly was cancelled by Hebborn’s art dealer in England the very day before. Hebborn had been instructed not to do the drawing.

Hebborn exhibited twice in Denmark. First time took place in the southern part of the country, where the Danish Queen  Margrethe honoured the painter with a visit together with prince Henrik. Hebborn handed over one of his drawings to her Majesty, the Queen. The second time took place in 1995 in Det Grønne Galleri (the Green Gallery) at Charlottenlund the same gallery, which was exposed to a raid by the police, when the Danish painter Ove Hvistendal exhibited copies of known artists, among these the Cobra painter Pierre Alechinsky. They were no forgeries but copyright law was violated.

The humble Eric Hebborn stands in the background, while the Queen and the Prince
 are looking at his drawings. The picture was “shut” at the exhibition "In the footsteps of CHR.IV."
 shown at Rosenfeldt Estate near Vordingborg, on June 23 to July 1994.
Photo: Janice Berthelsen

It is not easy to be an expert of art. Especially not when you find yourself doing wrong conclusions. But among those that make mistakes there is, of course, hesitation admitting there failures. And who are they? The experts? Every one of the lots stands to his opinion and won’t give an inch doing otherwise. In the case of Mr. Hebborn versus Piranesi it’s however not easy to understand that the above-mentioned drawing for so many years has had the pleasure being a genuine Piranesi.

© Preben Juul Madsen