Closeup/Art

The magnificent fraud

Tom Keating’s life is imitating art

Andreas Schroeder April 4 1977
Closeup/Art

The magnificent fraud

Tom Keating’s life is imitating art

Andreas Schroeder April 4 1977

The magnificent fraud

Tom Keating’s life is imitating art

Closeup/Art

Andreas Schroeder

We were sitting around a table in Ottawa’s CJOH-TV studios recently, guests on a new CTV show called CONNECTION which requires that its guests be a bit, well, unusual. On one side sat a man who could whistle Way Down Upon The Swanee River and hum an aria from Madame Butterfly at the same time, and next to him another who could play complicated melodies by rapidly squishing his palms together. Across the table two former United States Air Force pilots represented the Men Can’t Fly Society, an organization dedicated to the belief that flying is an illusion (their motto: “Birds fly; Men drinkV’); next to them, a veterinarian was getting set to perform acupuncture on a dog on television. One of the chairs was empty and the missing guest was rumored to be stranded at Montreal’s Mirabel Airport, still trying to reach Ottawa in time for the show.

Finally, just minutes before airtime, a hostess ushered in a white-haired, whitebearded, weary yet irrepressibly twinkleeyed teddy-bear of a man and announced Mr. Tom Keating, from England. Later, one of the show’s panelists groped for a description of Keating. “Would it be appropriate, then, to call you an art forger, Mr. Keating?” “Blimey, mate,” Keating re-

plied in his thick cockney accent, “you can call me illegitimate for all I care.”

A year ago, few Canadians would have recognized Tom Keating’s name. In England, he was known principally as a gifted restorer of old paintings and as a portrait artist who had developed a rather unusual style of painting with medical syringes. Then, in April, 1976, the 59-year-old artist threw the entire art world into an uproar when he announced—and proved—that he had been flooding the art market for 25 years with thousands of superbly executed fakes, paintings ranging from the Italian Renaissance (Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael) and all the way to the German Expressionism (Nolde, Kokoschka, Beckmann)—more than 160 painters in all. One of his favorite “models,” in fact, has been the German-born Canadian painter Cornelius Krieghoff, who lived mainly in Montreal and Quebec City and who died in 1872. Keating estimates he has faked at least “several hundred” Krieghoffs in his time.

Keating’s ruse is all the more intriguing because it represents, as he claims, a carefully contrived 25-year plan to embarrass the world’s art dealers and to expose some of their more dubious practices. A dedi-

cated left-winger, Keating feels that art dealers rip off the public and, just as importantly, the artist, growing rich by exploiting the public’s ignorance of art and the artist’s physical and spiritual hunger. “I’m not a malicious bloke, you know,” he explained as we sat over drinks in an Ottawa hotel after the TV show. “I’ve just had a lot of mates who’ve been half destroyed by these chaps, and I got to feeling a wee bit annoyed about it. Besides, painting pastiches was a nice way to relax after a hard day’s work restoring the old masters.”

A pastiche, by definition, is not a copy of an existing original work of art, but rather a painting executed in imitation of another artist’s style. In other words, Keating never actually copied the masters’ work, he simply painted in imitation of their style. But his imitations were so well done that they were authenticated by the art experts and art dealers as newly found additions to the collections of past masters. All this despite the fact that Keating always left clues to the deception in his fakes, such as humorous obscenities (“Bollocks!”) scrawled across the canvas before proceeding with the painting (this would have shown up on X-ray plates) or the use of modern acrylics and varnishes on paintings supposedly centuries old. “On top of that, I was very careful never to sign them, you see,” says Keating. “So just how do you suppose it came about that so many of my fakes, which I’ve since located, now carry the signatures of the artists I imitated?”

In proceeding with his plan, Keating was careful never to sell his pastiches to dealers as originals, and for years he rarely received more than $25 to $50 for them. “Many I just gave away to friends or acquaintances. I’ve never had much lolly [money], never owned a car in me life, never owned anything much at all. That’s the only way to keep sane, you know.”

Many of the fakes, however, found their way into art auctions or the hands of the antique dealers, and that’s when the price exploded. “I’ve seen my pastiches selling for £15,000 and £20,000 [$27,300 to $36,400] apiece,” he snorted, shaking his head scornfully but also sounding just a mite proud of the fact. “When I knew full well the blighters had picked them up for a few shillings from some gas-meter reader or whoever I’d given a handful of them to. Besides, I wasn’t always that careful; some of the dealers must have known they were selling fakes.”

Keating stood up and walked over to a Constable pastiche he’d brought along to Canada as a demonstration, skimming his thick stubby fingers swiftly, confidently over the various layers of paint, tracing them with the familiar authority of a man who has spent a good part of his life poking around the innards of masterpieces, restoring the crumbling manifestations of genius. He pointed out various giveaways— the studied shadings, the varnish too

creamy, the residual traces of old paint improperly removed.

Raised in London’s rowdy East End, Keating joined the Royal Navy at the age of 23 and did not begin painting seriously until he was in his mid-thirties. Married and later divorced (he has two children), Keating was in Canada in January for a round of TV appearances and to visit an old girl friend from England, Jane Kelly, who now lives near Barrie, Ontario. How did Keating’s career as an art faker begin?

“Look, I’ll tell you a story,” he says. “I got into this thing when 1 was about 35, when I was working for a restoring studio and we were cleaning three Krieghoffs. I’m normally quite fond of Krieghoff; I guess I like him because I’m sort of a homely and lonely bloke myself, and both his face and his paintings express the difficulties of his generation so clearly. However, there was one painting I didn’t think much of. It had three blokes in a sledge [sled] or something like that, and the chap I was working with got a bit snotty-like and told me it was a lot better than I could do. That got me going a bit, and that weekend I pinched the painting and copied it, varnished it and cracked it to look like the original by putting it close to a gas fire. On Monday I hid the original somewhere in the back and put my copy in its place. I fooled the whole studio, and when the chap I was working with poured cleaning fluid on it and the paint started melting off in big blobs—it was too fresh, you see—you should have heard him yell. He thought he’d ruined a Krieghoff. Well I

had my little revenge and then I explained the joke, and later on the owner of the studio had a look at it and promptly hired me to copy some Bennetts, stuff with Dickensian horse-and-coach scenes, that sort of thing. I was pleased to do it, you see, because I’m a very good restorer but I loathe the actual work, and so I was glad to be paid to paint instead.” Did that mean the dealer was actually selling commissioned Bennett fakes? “Well you see, England’s a bit different from the Continent when it comes to this forgery stuff,” Keating explained. “On the Continent you’re allowed to copy a painting but it’s illegal to sign it in the name of the original painter. In Eng-

land, you can sign in the name of the original painter because that signature is considered to be a part of the copy. In both cases, though, you’re not allowed to represent the copy as the original, or to sell it for the original’s price. But that, you see, somehow gets forgotten a lot. Anyway, I thought this bloke was just selling my Bennetts as the law permits, until one day the palette boy came down and told me he’d seen a couple of them in a gallery on Bond Street, selling from £1,500 to £3,000 [$2,730 to $5,460],

“As you might imagine, we had a bloody great row over it and that’s when I formed the idea of pushing this sort of thing to the limit and then pulling the plug on it, so to speak. It was possible, you see, because many of the old masters didn’t sign their early paintings, and for centuries, even as far back as the Greeks and Romans, art dealers have been having a field day fixing on whichever signatures they please. Or they even erase one that’s already on and substitute another. I was called up by a lord in Inverness, Scotland, for example—he lived in a right huge castle, he did—and he wanted me to clean some equestrian paintings for him, one of which was a Fearnley. So I came and had a look and right off I knew that Fearnley wasn’t right, and when I cleaned the varnish off, sure enough, the signature came off and underneath was the name George Stubbs. And that goes on constantly. There’s hardly a dealership that doesn’t do it, and I’m including the biggest and best-known agencies.”

He set aside the Constable and pulled out a Goya self-portrait, a magnificently painted piece of fakery for which he said he’d been offered £12,000 [$21,840] in 1962. As we stood gazing at it, this amazing shortcut back to the old masters, I kept wondering how it must feel to be able to get so close, to have painted so well and yet at the same time to know that it was all, somehow, critically undercut, having been done so rigidly within another man’s context. _

“The so-called experts are another part of the racket that makes me a bit dizzy sometimes,” Keating continued. “Most of my pastiches have been authenticated by one expert or another, you know; some of them by several experts at once. After I’d painted that Goya self-portrait, I gave it to a friend who took it to an art dealer and pretended he’d just come from Spain, couldn’t speak much English and so on; they almost tore the thing out of his hands. They sent it around to four Goya experts in Britain, all of whom pronounced it genuine and one even said it was painted on top of a Velazquez. Nobody noticed that the red slash in the picture was painted in acrylic, whereas Goya painted only in oils and long before acrylics were invented. And they X-rayed it and God knows what else. In any case, we didn’t sell that painting; I gave it to my friend and it was returned to me recently.”

It is said that some literary translators

claim to be almost “possessed” by the original author when they have been translating the writer for a long time. Did something like that happen to Keating? Was it all straightforward technique, purely a matter of craft, or was there a meeting of minds somehow to enable Keating to do what he did?

Keating rummaged around in his pocket and pulled out a tin of tobacco, from which he took some papers and proceeded to roll himself a cigarette. “I’m basically a superstitious man,” Keating replied. “For me, objects give off their own unique resonances, know what I mean, and some of them I can’t handle. For example, the lady I lived with for 15 years, she got a gift from someone, some fertility statue from some place in Africa I think it was, and while it was in the house I couldn’t settle down, I was nervous and irritable all the time. We started looking for what was doing it and it was the statue. We had to get rid of it, finally. Well, paintings have the same thing. Lots of my pastiches, like, were done by just looking through art books and such; I didn’t go and stare at them in a gallery or anything. But there were a couple of cases—only a couple, a handful really—but something different happened with them, something quite different, do you catch my meaning? Something different.

“With the Degas, for instance, it was like that. I was living alone in Scotland at the time, it was in 1956 I think, and I was experiencing ghosts—a terrifying experience—the first psychic experience I ever had. I was depressed, just fooling with the paper and the ink and then I went to bed. Next morning when I woke up there was the paper and the ink and I had a Degas self-portrait on the easel that I didn’t really remember doing.”

A year or so later a lady friend of Keating’s took the Degas pastiche to the Louvre in Paris, and, says Keating, “they went a bit bananas. Somebody took it to the outskirts of Paris to a clinic where Degas’ close friend and biographer, a Monsieur Lemoire, was being treated. Well, he took one look at it and burst out crying and said: ‘This is the work of my old friend Degas . . .’ There were, in fact, eight authentic Degas hanging in the room and the selfportrait fitted in perfectly. Because that’s one of the most reliable ways to tell a fake, you see. You set it up to a selection of authentic works and you should be able to tell the fake right off. There isn’t the right vitality, the spontaneity; the pastiche is too painstaking because the pastiche painter constantly has to curb and check his feelings and creative urges against a premeditated model. But in this case there was no difference; they really were the same. They offered her 12,000 quid [$21,840 for the drawing,” he noted drily. “I took it back, photographed it, then destroyed it. And I burned a Van Gogh self-portrait for the same reason, but that was also because I can’t stand having Van Goghs around, you see; they’re more of those objects I

can’t seem to live with. Have you ever stayed in a room with a Van Gogh on the wall for a long time? It’ll drive you loony after a while. Believe me—at least it does me.”

When Keating blew the whistle on himself, the immediate reaction was fairly predictable: the press chortled at the art world’s discomfort; others nodded knowingly and concluded that their suspicions had been proven true; artists generally were sympathetic and applauded Keating’s deceptions. The art world nervously waited for an explosion of court cases, strings of law suits and countersuits and the resultant bankruptcies that would bring at least some of the shadier profiteers to their knees.

Two court cases soon materialized. One involved a bundle of some 65 paintings that had been stolen from Keating’s cottage and sold under the table to a gallery which paid only 8,000 ($14,560) for the lot, then panicked when Keating’s confession hit the press. That gallery later publicly offered to return the purchase price to its customers. The other case was—in Keating’s word—a bit “naughtier” and involved pastiches in the manner of Samuel Palmer during Palmer’s “Shoreham period,” a highly productive phase in the 18th-century English painter’s career. “I made about 80 drawings in that style,” says Keating. “And in that instance I gave one of them to a friend who put it into a village auction. A dealer bought the drawing and. despite the fact that it was pronounced a fake by two experts, sold it for 15,000 quid ($27,300) to a close friend of Princess Margaret. When this bloke discovered he’d been had, the dealer offered him three other expensive drawings if he’d sign a piece of paper saying that none of this had ever happened. Later, the dealer got in touch with my friend and asked her if she could get him some more of those ‘Palmers’; he’d pay good money for them, he said.”

Now, Scotland Yard has launched a fullscale inquiry into just how Keating’s pastiches came to be marketed so successfully and so lucratively. The police reportedly have tracked down some 60 Keatings, including about 30 in the style of the French impressionists and the German Expressionists, five in the manner of Constable, several “Krieghoffs” and others. As a result, Keating recently has been spending a lot of his time talking to the police—but so far only as a potential witness. Surprisingly, though, there has been no rush by the owners of Keating fakes to demand their money back from dealers.

“The supreme irony of it all,” says Keating, “is that people appear not to want to know they’ve got fakes; after all, they’ve got these ‘authenticated’ paintings in their collections and if nobody makes a fuss they can just carry on selling them as genuine, can’t they? I offered my services to the British Antique Dealers’ Association and the

London Fine Art Dealers, offering to help identify both my and other fakes and to show them a foolproof way to determine authenticity—and sure enough, they didn’t want to know about it.”

Now that the uproar over Keating is settling down, he is receiving quiet invitations from some major art collectors who want to know if their investments are genuine—among them Kenneth Thomson of the Thomson newspaper chain, who wanted to know if his collection of more than 100 Krieghoffs was real. He was lucky; it was. “Lots of others haven’t been nearly so fortunate,” says Keating, “al-

though that’s not really the right word for it, is it? I mean, they could all get their money back if they wanted. But you’re not hearing anybody publicly announcing they’ve found Keating fakes in their collections. The most that’s happened is that a few of them have asked me to sign my own name on them, probably because they’re gambling that all this notoriety will make authenticated Keating fakes a lot more valuable.” Keating paused and broke into one of his characteristic cherubic grins. “You know, gov’nor, the more I think about it the more I’m beginning to suspect the blighters might actually be right!