David Henty on his forging days, getting into the psyche of an artist and a genuine love for painting
PUBLISHED: 15:04 16 June 2017
Until he was exposed in a 2014 Telegraph investigation Saltdean's David Henty had sold more than 1,000 forged art works through internet auction sites. As his reproductions of old masters go on show Duncan Hall glimpses the forger's world
“The forger’s den” is how David Henty describes his little store room. It is stuffed with old frames, canvases, auction catalogues and well-thumbed hardback books on famous artists which line the walls. And then there are the paintings. Here is a Gabriel Rossetti, dating back to his prison days. There is a half-finished Caravaggio’s Medusa. At the back of the room is a small Lowry painting. And there are two stunning Van Goghs – a self portrait and a landscape – both actual size stacked against a wall. In his bedroom is a half-finished take on Millais’ Ophelia and a gorgeous version of Caravaggio’s
The Taking of Christ. Getting through the front door requires squeezing past a giant Francis Bacon, and in the living room, on an easel, is Picasso’s Weeping Woman – still drying.
This is what happens when a former forger goes legit. He took painting classes in prison – while serving a stretch in the 1990s for forging UK passports during the handover of Hong Kong – and realised he had a skill for imitation. Since 2008 he sold paintings “in the style of” collectible artists, such as LS Lowry, D’Oyly John, Fred Yeats and Paul Henry for hundreds of pounds through five different eBay sites. “I sold 1,000 paintings and got 1,000 positive feedbacks on one site,” he says from his Saltdean home where he lives with partner Natania. “I stuck on the right side of the law, with the caveat that all works were sold ‘after or in the style of’ the artist. I had a solicitor friend of mine who worked it out.”
That was until he was uncovered by reporter Robert Mendick in a 2014 Telegraph investigation into forged art. Overnight his sites were closed down, and he found himself under investigation by the criminal tax bureau. “I had to get a really good accountant,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do.” Then he got a letter from someone in Ireland asking for three ‘forged’ paintings, which he sold for £4,000 each. All of a sudden he had a new career as a legitimate forger, creating hand-painted copies of much-loved masterpieces.
“There was a Picasso which went for £157m at auction,” he says. “The real thing goes in a bank vault or is used in bartering to finance something else. I can paint you one for £5,500 and you can put it on your wall and enjoy it.”
He admits he has been accused of an unethical practice by some critics, but meeting the cheerily upbeat 59-year-old face-to-face his genuine love of art comes across – combined with a mischievous joy at having played the system for so long. His kitchen table is piled with glossy art books, which he uses for inspiration. His conversation is peppered with easy references to artists he admires – who are the only ones he paints. When Sussex Life visits, his living room is dominated by two full-size copies of Norman Rockwell oil paintings: 1941’s boxing-themed Strictly A Sharpshooter and 1964’s The Problem We All Live With, albeit without the original’s racist graffiti which he is struggling to add. The latter, which is 1.5m wide, focuses on a neatly dressed young black girl, school books in hand, being walked by four deputy US marshals past a graffiti-strewn wall recently spattered by a thrown tomato. The painting, which was inspired by the real-life story of six-year-old Ruby Bridges during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis, was hung on the wall of Barack Obama’s White House in 2011. David would love to present his version to the former president as a gift.
The care and attention David puts into his paintings comes across when he discusses Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear which is leaning against the sofa. He admits he was having problems getting the nose right – and it was only when he went to see the actual painting close-up that he realised Vincent had experienced the same problem. “I get into the psyche of an artist,” he says. “When I’m doing Caravaggio I read about him, I watch films about him, when I go to bed I’m dreaming about him. I study the original palette colours. He used handmade paints, including lead white which people don’t use any more – but I do.”
When it came to making his forgeries he would look for common themes or styles. “Lowry used a lot of the same backgrounds time and time again,” he says. “When I was doing D’Oyly John [who spent his last days in Brighton and Rottingdean] I found a lot of his works used the same buildings in different contexts, so to create new ‘old’ works I would put the sea behind them or a road or turn them around.”
He confesses to having a very visual brain – being able to see how a painting would work on a canvas before he starts. He learned some of his tricks as a youngster, when he added details of golfers and fishermen to 1920s “potboiler” paintings his dad sold to US tourists from his Portland Road antique shop in Hove.
But it was in art classes at prison that he realised he had a talent for it. “My tenth painting in prison was a Rossetti painting,” he says. “I just found the shape of his subject’s jaw and worked it up from there. They told me I wasn’t supposed to paint like that, but it is what suited me and I have done it ever since.” He did try selling some of his own work, but found he wasn’t getting a lot of interest. “When I could paint a Paul Henry in an afternoon and get £500 for it why should I struggle for a week and put myself out there?”
With his current commissions he is following the same methods he used in his forging days, from ageing the paintings by putting them by his wood stove, to using old canvases and frames picked up at car boot sales. He no longer feels the need to add the extra touches though – the fake auction stamps or notes attached to the back of canvases created using a vintage typewriter, augmented with tantalising details, such as artists’ original addresses, as uncovered through his research. It was those details which made his original customers believe they might be getting a bargain – and may explain why some later ended up at auction houses being sold for much more than their original buyer paid for them.
David’s method seems to have been to exploit others’ greed and make them believe they were picking up a bargain. As W C Fields once said, you can’t cheat an honest man. “One day they had an auction up the road from me,” he says. “I made up a box of old frames and prints, and put a little Gerard Dillon painting in there too. I took it to the auction and they had a quick look. They said I would probably get between £10 to £30 for the box.” Once the dealers had gone through the box the auctioneer found the prices spiralled up to £700.
Another of David’s less subtle methods was to simply go to Brighton’s weekly car boot sale at the railway station with a couple of canvases under his arm, which he would sell for £200.
“A lot of my paintings have been sold into the wider world,” says David. “I have seen my paintings in catalogues with prices going into the thousands. I have done so many of certain artists I don’t know what is theirs and what is mine!”
Having appeared as one of the forgers on Sky Arts’ Fake! The Great Masterpiece Challenge in April, which challenged people to pick out imitation artworks from the real thing in UK public galleries, he is currently in the process of working with a ghost writer on a book about how to be a forger, which has been picked up by Channel Four. “You can’t go to art school and learn about it,” he says. “This forger’s handbook will be about how to get the right materials and how to stay in front of the law.”
He has got other tips from his friend Billy ‘The Brush’ Mumford, who is joining him in his upcoming exhibition A Question of Attribution: A Tale Of Two Forgers at Brighton’s No Walls Gallery. Billy, who specialises in 1960s abstracts by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, used to take his canvases to a 60-a-day smoker to get the right aged patina.
“I’ve always been drawn to the darker side of things,” says David who as well as reading up on many famous forgers has done copies of their work too. “I’ve done some Tom Keatings, Elmyr de Horys and Jack Vettrianos when he was doing copies of Monet as Jack Hoggan.”
Woe betide anyone who tries to copy David’s paintings in the same way – which must be tempting as his work can now go for up to £8,000. “I use a microchip in the back of all my paintings,” he says. “If it doesn’t have that it isn’t one of mine.”
He is still exploring new artists. Among those he would like to attempt but who remain out of reach are JMW Turner and Lucien Freud. “I become fascinated by artists, it almost becomes an obsession,” he says. “There are a few artists like Lowry who I struggle with now as I’m not interested in them any more. I always want to do new artists – it’s how you learn.”
Now summer is here he generally paints on the balcony at the back of his house, which overlooks Saltdean Park behind the newly reconstructed Lido.
“I paint every day,” he says. “It is a labour of love. As long as I’m having fun I will keep doing it.”
Need to know
A Question of Attribution: A Tale of Two Forgers is at the No Walls Gallery in 114 Church Street, Brighton, BN1 1UD, from Saturday 10 to Saturday 17 June 2017. For more information visit www.davidhentyart.co.uk