Tom Keating: Criminal or hero?
In the nineteen sixties and seventies, Tom Keating made a very handy living as an art forger. But was he a criminal or was he simply exposing the shady side of the art world?
He painted fakes in the style of several well known painters (whose works were valuable and in demand) and sold them without exactly revealing that they were ‘home made’.
How much of a crime is that, exactly?
Well, in those days (I can’t speak for today although I doubt the situation has changed) there is nothing illegal in creating a copy of a famous painting.
When I was growing up our dining room was adorned by a cheap, but framed, print of Goya’s Señora Sabasa Garcia. And every self-respecting council house had a print of ‘the green lady’. The Mona Lisa even adorned the case my mum used to keep her sunglasses in.
There is also nothing illegal about painting a work which can be described as ‘school of’. In other words, in the style of a particular artist. I could paint a portrait of you in the same mode as Señora Sabasa Garcia and it could be described as ‘from the school of Goya’ or ‘in the style of Goya’. Artists’ apprentices did this all the time.
Where you break the law is when you actively declare that the fake is an original. Creating a false provenance is against the law because this is done deliberately to deceive and, by extension, deliberately intended to make money from a fake.
What is the provenance of an artwork?
There are many ways in which this can be faked. Anyone who has the skills to fake a painting also has the wherewithal to create false invoices, appraisals, family histories, last wills and testaments plus many more paperwork items that ‘prove’ that a piece of art legally belongs to its owner and is genuine. When Tom Keating was finally accused of fraud, he blamed his girlfriend, Jane Kelly, for developing fake provenance for his paintings. She, who was almost thirty years younger than Tom, blamed him for faking the history of his ‘Sexton Blakes’.
What is a Sexton Blake?
This is English rhyming slang. The most commonly given example of rhyming slang is ‘apples and pears’ meaning stairs. (“Get up the apples and go to bed”.) Sexton Blake was a fictional detective in a UK comic strips and therefore ‘Sexton Blake’ became rhyming slang for ‘fake’. This would often be abbreviated to ‘sextons’ in the same way that ‘apples’ came to be slang for ‘stairs’.
Why was Tom Keating exposing the art world?
Keating did not make his paintings in the way that most art forgers would. He inserted what he called ‘time-bombs’ into his work. For example, he would put some writing on the canvas before he painted it (quite possibly a few rude words) so that they would be seen if the painting was x-rayed. Sometimes he would paint in an anachronistic item into a work – for instance, a turkey in a British medieval scene.
He claimed that his goal was not to make a fortune but to expose the art world and the many frauds within it. Any sure enough,the art world was fooled.
How easy was it to fool the art world?
In those days? Very easy. I’ve done it. Now don’t get the wrong idea – I didn’t make a lot of money, I didn’t actually do anything illegal and I’m certain that the officers of Interpol aren’t after me. But rather in the spirit of Tom Keating, I decided to see if it could be done. It could, easily.
I found that back in those days, particularly in provincial towns, there were many art auctioneers and art dealers who were convinced that they would find unknown valuables in country auctions and salerooms. They weren’t too cautious. They’d out two and two together and make five. All I did was give them a couple of twos…..
What happened to Tom Keating?
He was charged with fraud in 1977. But the case never came to court because of his ill health. Nevertheless, the public was fascinated by him and his story and he appeared in a television series describing traditional painting techniques. At last he was making money from his art knowledge and skills but on the right side of the law this time.
He died in 1984. But in a way, he had the last laugh. Even before his death, collectors started snapping up his fakes.
Today, Tom Keating’s ‘Sexton Blakes’ sell for tens of thousands of pounds.
See an episode of his television show.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR