Forging Ahead: Francis Downing reveals how he outwitted art crooks at their own game

As most of us know only too well, art thieves are very much aware of marketable items and steal with the certainty and confidence that they will easily find a buyer for their wares. Often this is through a ‘fence’, or someone who has the ability to offload the goods onto an unsuspecting market, without any trace back to themselves.

However, sometimes a crooked buyer might come across a desired item in a stately home, gallery or art restorer’s collection and arrange for a thief to obtain it for him. When stealing to order, the value of the goods is generally higher. While the thief does not necessarily know much about the item he steals, he would normally develop some sort of knowledge along the way. Stealing to offload goods on the market is prevalent, but the increasing rate of robberies being done to order is alarming.

It was with this interest in mind that I was approached by a television company who were keen to make a programme about art theft. They wondered if it was possible to engage an art thief to steal a painting and, unbeknown to him, film the act to show on The Cook Report. I was sure this would be entirely possible. The problem was that the painting had to be of good enough quality and sufficient value, so as not to create any suspicion. The help came in the form of a stately home and a painting that I had restored some years before. The owners were happy for the painting, a stable interior scene by James Seymour art valued around €50,000, to be used to aid the programme. Obviously neither the insurance cover nor common sense could allow the painting to be used directly in the theft, but it was hoped that a copy could be made to aid our deception effectively.

Which one is fake?

Figure 1 and 2: Which one is fake? Stable interior scene – subject A (left) and B (right). Answer found beneath author bio.

The intention was to make a forgery of the painting that even a skilled art thief would not suspect. Although it was unlikely that any legal prosecution could be taken against a thief who had been set up in such a way, it was agreed that the main aim was to demonstrate how prolific art theft had become and just how easy it is to engage a thief.

In order to make the correct preparations, I had to obtain a painting, about the same size and age as the Seymour with a canvas and stretcher of the period, to use in making the counterfeit copy. Of course, this painting also had to be of negligible value.

While searching the auction houses and small galleries for the type of painting required, other preparations were set in motion. It was decided to create a fake restorer’s studio to be the scene of the theft. A suitable location was looked for and lighting, equipment and a sign to indicate a restorer’s business were obtained.

After some weeks I had found the painting I was looking for in a small auction room in Northumberland. The painting, an oil on canvas depicting a country scene with a mill, was slightly larger in size than the Seymour but as there was no official record of the original Seymour having been sold at auction. The extra tow or three inches in height wouldn’t matter. In keeping with the period, the canvas was thin and there had been some shrinkage, creating minor cracking in the ground layer. The paint and impasto wasn’t heavy and this made the process of work easier.

Figure 3: the oil on canvas painting of a country scene with a mill, about the same size and age as the Seymour, but of negligible value. The perfect painting to be used to make the forged copy.

As is normal, the painting was cleaned in stages. First the surface grime and the thin resin varnish were taken off. This left the surface exposed for the next stage which was the complete removal of the paint down to the ground layer. This left a base on which to construct the new painting. The design of the Seymour painting, a stable interior with a horse, groom and seated dog, was drawn onto the old ground layer of the copy canvas, adjusting the scale slightly for the difference in size. The ground layer was then given an ochre wash as an undertone.

Whilst the Seymour had been painted in oils, it was decided to construct the copy with acrylic water-based resin. There were two reasons for this: firstly, acrylic resin can dry within minutes, whereas oil can take from days to weeks. Secondly, new oil paint, even when dry, continues to give off a recognizable odour, sometimes up to years after having been applied. A small amount of organic, water-based resin was also added to the paint to reduce flexibility.

The painting was built up, firstly, by copying the light and shade of the Seymour painting. This was followed by the main construction of the paintwork. Finally, a glazing technique was used to soften lines and imitate age. The painting was also made to appear older by applying specialised varnishes to induce cracking and discolour the artwork. A final rubbing of the dried varnish surface with extremely fine emery paper completed the visual preparation. By carefully running a thumb along the lines of shrinkage on the canvas reverse, further cracks were produced in the now dry paint.

Figure 4: The reverse side of the forged copy. The brown border is the stretcher of loom on which the canvas is attached.
Figure 5: The canvas is given a coat of ‘aging varnish’ to aid the deception
Figure 6: The finishing touches are made and the immaculate copy is complete.

The painting complete, the equipment was assembled in the studio. A sign had been erected outside in the name of ‘Frederick Ashby’ – a pseudonym I have used before; I even had some business cards printed in the same name. The stage was set.

Using known sources, an individual who was thought to be involved in the shady side of the art market was approached. Following discussion he offered, for a fee, to “obtain the valuable picture” from its location. Unknown to the prospective thief, some of the negotiation was filmed, as was his eventual theft of the painting.

A camera was set up if the bogus restorer’s studio where he had been told the painting was awaiting work. As a result, the thief was caught on film as he broke through the window in the early hours of the morning and entered the premises. He was filmed again two days later at the rendezvous, when he came to hand over the picture and claim his fee. With everything now permanently on film the thief had to face up to his actions and the fact that he had been duped.

What the camera couldn’t fully record was the great personal shock he received. Hopefully next time he’ll have learnt the lesson to stay on the legal side of the fence.

About the author: Francis Downing ACR, trained as paintings conservator in Italy (Bari & Rome). In 1976 he established a Private Studio in the UK. From 1989 – 1997 he worked as a Forensic Conservator for North Yorkshire and other UK Police forces, as well as Interpol, during a long-term investigation into fraudulent paintings, which extended to other European Countries and the United States. The Studio works for Private Clients, Historic Houses, Churches, National Trust, Museums and Galleries. He is also an Associate Lecturer on the Fine Art Conservation MA course at Northumbria University.

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.

Answer: A is fake, B is the original painting by James Seymour.

The 2003 origin source for this article was printed in Trace: Protection and Retrieval of Art and Antiquities. This magazine is no longer in print, but the author would like to acknowledge the editor at the time of this article’s publication, Emma Lewis.

Francis Downing is Fine Art Paintings Conservator.

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