Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Tom Keating was born in London a Cockney into a poor family. After World War Two he began to restore paintings for a living, though he also worked as a house painter to make ends meet. In addition, he exhibited his own paintings, but failed to break into the art market.
Keating perceived the gallery system to be rotten, dominated by US-led "avant-garde fashion, with critics and dealers often conniving to line their own pockets at the expense both of naive collectors and impoverished artists. Keating retaliated by creating forgeries to fool the experts, hoping to destabilise the system.
Keating planted 'time-bombs' in his products. He left clues of the paintings' true nature for fellow art restorers or conservators to find. For instance, he might write text onto the canvas with lead white before he began to paint; x-rays would then reveal the text. He deliberately added flaws or anachronisms, or used materials peculiar to the twentieth century. Modern copyists of old masters use similar practices to guard against accusations of fraud.
Keating's own approach of choice in oil painting was a Venetian technique inspired by Titian's practice, though modified and fine-tuned along Dutch lines. The resultant paintings, though time-consuming to execute, have a richness and subtlety of colour and optical effect, variety of texture and depth of atmosphere unattainable in any other way. Unsurprisingly, his favourite artist was Rembrandt.
For a 'Rembrandt', Keating might make pigments by boiling nuts for ten hours and filtering the result through silk; such colouring would eventually fade while genuine earth pigments would not. As a restorer he knew about the chemistry of cleaning fluids; so, a layer of glycerine under the paint layer ensured that when any of his forged paintings needed to be cleaned (as all oil paintings need to be, eventually), the glycerine would dissolve, the paint layer would disintegrate, and the painting - now a ruin - would stand revealed as a fake.
Occasionally, as a restorer, he would come across frames with Christie's catalogue numbers still on them. To help in establishing false provenances for his forgeries he would call the auction house to ask whose paintings they had contained - and then painted the pictures according to the same artist's style.
Keating also produced a number of watercolors in the style of Samuel Palmer and oil paintings by various European masters including Francois Boucher, Edgar Degas, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Thomas Gainsborough, Amedeo Modigliani, Rembrandt, Jean Renoir and Kees van Dongen.
In 1970, auctioneers noticed that there were thirteen watercolor paintings of Samuel Palmer for sale - all of them depicting the same theme, the town of Shoreham. When an article in The Times wrote about suspicions of their provenance, Keating confessed that they were his. He also estimated that more than 2000 of his forgeries were in circulation. He had created them, he declared, as a protest against those art traders who get rich at the artist's expense. He also refused to list the forgeries.
Keating was finally arrested in 1977 and accused of conspiracy to defraud, but the case was dropped on account of his bad health. Years of chain-smoking and the effects of breathing in the fumes of chemicals used in art restoring such as ammonia, turpentine and methylated alcohol in poorly ventilated conditions, together with the stress induced by the court case, had taken their toll. However, in 1982 and 1983 Keating rallied and, though in increasingly fragile health, presented television programmes on the techniques of old masters for Channel 4 in the UK (currently available on video), and jointly wrote the book The Fake's Progress (Hutchinson, London, 1977) with Geraldine and Frank Norman. Just a year before he died at 65 years old, Keating claimed on TV that, in his opinion, he was not an especially good painter. His proponents would disagree.
Even when he was alive, many art collectors among celebrities, such as the ex-heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper, begun to collect Keating's work. After his death in 1984, his paintings became increasingly valuable collectibles. Ironically, the same year Christie's auctioned 204 of them. The total amount raised is unknown but it is said to have been considerable. Even his known forgeries (described in catalogues as being "after" Gainsborough or Cézanne) now attain high prices.
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