An old smock and 60 cigs a day: Peter James learns tricks of art forger’s trade

They are the tricks of the art forger’s trade: from wearing 18th-century smocks (fibres in the paint) to ageing paintings for weeks in front of wood-burning stoves (cracks) or having someone smoke 60 cigarettes a day alongside an artwork (patina).

And they have been shared with the bestselling crime writer Peter James for his forthcoming novel about the world of fakes and forgeries, and who has been given an insight into some of the forgers’ more dubious talents.

One fraudster confided that, before CCTV, he visited stately homes open to the public, photographing high-value paintings and copying them – before returning to swap them over.

James said: “Go round some of those properties and you’ll see forgeries going back 30 years.”

Another forger revealed that a curator at a museum lent him an 18th-century smock from its collection so he could wear it while forging a 1770s painting – ensuring no incriminating fibres from modern clothing would fall into the paint.

James said: “He told me, ‘I’d also get some of the fibres from the smock into the paint so that, if it’s ever carbon-dated, it will show up as fibres from 1770’.”

James is best known for creating Det Supt Roy Grace in what has become one of the world’s most popular detective series, selling 21m copies, translated into 37 languages and topping the bestseller charts 19 times. In the pursuit of realism his research has involved putting his own life in danger and joining the police on raids and investigations, coming face to face with burglars and drug dealers who have inspired his fictional characters.

Now he has woven some of the forgers’ real-life stories into his new novel Picture You Dead, to be published on 29 September. It reflects the lengths to which art fraudsters go to ensure their fakes are undetected.

For his central character – Daniel Hegarty, “rightly reputed to be the finest art forger in the world” – he found inspiration in the former master forger David Henty, who gave him extraordinary insights into art crime, showing him how to paint a perfect fake in recreating a landscape by the 18th-century French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

James said: “I’d asked him, could you fake a Fragonard so well that the world’s number one Fragonard expert could not tell it’s a forgery? He said, ‘yes’, and he told me how he’d do it.”

He added: “In the book, I invented that Fragonard had done four paintings of the Four Seasons … long lost since the French Revolution. From what I described, he actually painted me a picture.”

Copyist artist David Henty
David Henty: ‘I’ve got a Mona Lisa downstairs.’ Photograph: Jim Holden/Alamy

Through an antique dealer friend in France, Henty bought a period religious painting for a few thousand pounds. He scrubbed off 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-burning stove for two weeks. To recreate aged patina, he left it for two months in the home of a friend who smokes 60 cigarettes a day.

James said: “Everybody I show his work to is utterly astounded. He can copy so many different artists, from Fragonard to Caravaggio. They’re just stunning.”

He recalled that Henty gave him a Lowry forgery that duped a high-profile expert, who was shocked to be told it was not genuine: “He said, ‘unbelievable, I would not have spotted that’.”

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James was introduced to Henty by the policeman who arrested him in the 1990s for forging British passports. Two spelling mistakes gave him away and Henty was jailed for five years.

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 “improved” lesser paintings.

He told the Guardian he bought a 1930s still life in a market for £3, upgrading it to a 1934 painting by the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, in signing it “VB34”: “I made £1,000 and then I saw it in a London gallery for £7,000 as a certified Vanessa Bell.”

He mocked so-called experts who look at the signature first and then the art. Sometimes he upgraded a painting by attaching a brass plaque with an impressive name: “It’s like a magnet, they can’t get their eyes off that plaque.”

He was unmasked in 2014 after he revealed he had painted a Picasso, and now has a legitimate career as a copyist. “I’ve got a Mona Lisa downstairs,” he said.

Asked whether fooling the experts was satisfying, he spoke of “professional pride”, adding: “It’s not for the money.”

He recalled a dealer buying many forgeries, believing they were stolen originals, telling him: “I’ll have as many as you can get.”

Likening the unregulated art world to the wild west, he said others knew they were forgeries: “There’s so much money in the art world that the greed takes over.”

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