The artful forger

Karl Sim's "Evelyn Page" painting, reproduced in the International Art Centre's catalogue. Photo:...
Karl Sim's "Evelyn Page" painting, reproduced in the International Art Centre's catalogue. Photo: International Art Centre catalogue, 15 October 1999
New Zealand's only convicted art forger, Karl Sim, and his associates entangled art experts from around the country in their web of deception. In this extract from the new book A Good Joke: The Life and Crimes of Notorious New Zealand Art Forger Karl Sim, Dunedin author Ian Dougherty reveals that Sim's boast about "fooling the experts" extended to Christchurch and Dunedin.

Karl Sim
Karl Sim
Sim's key post-trial collaboration was with Gary "Skin" Skinner, who Sim knew from his Foxton days. Skinner usually took care of the provenance, authentication and dealing. While Skinner was still living in Feilding in 1998, shortly before he moved to Pukekohe in South Auckland, he tried to sell on Sim's behalf a couple of Sim's old forgeries through a Palmerston North art gallery, Taylor-Jensen Fine Arts. These were Sim's "John Weeks" Monaco and Red Rocks paintings. Skinner told the firm his father had given him the paintings about 30 years earlier, wrapped in a 1952 newspaper and an old sugar sack, telling him they were collector's items and could be worth quite a few pounds.

Settled in Pukekohe, Skinner sold on Sim's behalf an oil-on-board painting from Sim's Technical School art class days, looking through one end of the then newly-built second Fitzherbert Bridge over the Manawatu River in Palmerston North. Sim now added to the back of the painting a copy of the signature of "Evelyn Page", the Christchurch-born artist who had died in 1988. Skinner sent a photograph of the painting to the manager of collections at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch, Neil Roberts, who had curated a touring exhibition of Page's work and co-written the exhibition catalogue with Janet Paul in 1986. Roberts replied he thought the painting was by the artist, of a river scene in the Waikanae area around 1949 or 1950, and the signature on the back was "definitely that of Evelyn Page". Page and her husband were living in Wellington but had a weekend house at Waikanae and she painted several works at the house and in the district. Skinner duly entered the authenticated work in an International Art Centre auction on 15 October 1999 as a signed Evelyn Page painting, not of the Fitzherbert Bridge in Palmerston North or of a bridge in the Waikanae area on the coast, but with the title of "Swimmers, Hutt River". No-one seemed to notice it did not look like any bridge over the Hutt River in the Hutt Valley. It sold for $8000 and Skinner received a cheque for $6635.

Charles Heaphy's painting of his girlfriend. Photo: Dunbar Sloane catalogue, 17/18 November 1986
Charles Heaphy's painting of his girlfriend. Photo: Dunbar Sloane catalogue, 17/18 November 1986
With Skinner's help, Sim had another go at selling "Charles Heaphy" forgeries. In November 1986, Dunbar Sloane had offered for sale a genuine unsigned watercolour Heaphy portrait of his future wife, Kate Churton. From the catalogue photograph of the portrait, Sim produced a similar pencil and watercolour portrait, but uglier and with one hand folded over an arm, rather than both hands side by side, and this time inscribed "Kate Churton". Sim got a kick out of changing something in a work he was copying, such as the hand placement in the Churton portrait. Sim also resurrected one of his schooldays watercolours of Porirua Harbour, which he signed "C Heaphy", titled "Sketch of the Sunset Hokianga" and dated 1877.

In December 1999, Skinner sent colour photocopies of the two "Heaphy" paintings to the curator of pictorial collections at the University of Otago's Hocken Library in Dunedin, Linda Tyler, who told him all he and Sim wanted to hear. She wrote, "In my opinion, the portrait is of the artist's wife-to-be, Catherine Letitia Churton, who he married in Auckland on 30 October 1851. As the watercolour is titled with her maiden name and she looks to have been a very young woman when she sat for this portrait, I would suggest the painting be dated before his marriage in 1851 but no earlier than August 1848, when he left Nelson to accept a position as draughtsman in the Survey Office in Auckland. Presumably the sketch of the Hokianga Harbour was also done during his employ as draughtsman for the colonial government."

A photocopy of Karl Sim's version of the Heaphy painting. Photo: Author's collection
A photocopy of Karl Sim's version of the Heaphy painting. Photo: Author's collection
Skinner sent the two forgeries and the Tyler letter to Dunbar Sloane, which advertised them for auction on 12 April 2000. Regarding the Churton portrait, the auctioneer told prospective buyers, "Linda Tyler of the Hocken Library, Dunedin, believes that Kate Churton was Catherine Letitia Churton, Heaphy's wife to be, whom he married in Auckland on 30 October 1851." Regarding the "Hokianga" sunset, the auctioneer stated, "A copy of the letter of verification from Linda Tyler will be given to the purchaser." Skinner claimed both works came from the estate of his maternal grandmother, Susan Ann Berry, who died in Wellington in 1978.

Both forgeries were withdrawn from sale just before they went under the hammer, because they were correctly suspected of being Sim's handiwork. Sim had spoken at the Avondale Rotary Club a few days before the Dunbar Sloane action, where he could not resist boasting about two of his forgeries appearing in the auction. A Helensville art dealer, John Perry - who became Sim's nemesis and debunker - and an art critic, Peter Jarvis, heard about the boast, saw the Heaphy paintings at the auction, said their poor quality was obvious and carried the hallmarks of Sim forgeries. Dunbar Sloane auctioneer Andrew Grigg conceded although the paintings were entered with a letter of authenticity from Tyler, she had not seen the paintings in person, only photocopies of the works. Grigg put them up for sale as "probable fakes" and there were no takers.

Sim had Ken Bailey, who continued to act as Sim's lawyer, tell the media Sim denied any involvement in the Heaphy paintings. He conceded Sim did announce at the Rotary meeting he had seen one of his paintings in a Dunbar Sloane catalogue, a work he had created prior to his prosecution, but would not say which one because he feared it might incriminate him. Sim, through Bailey, repeated the art forgery part of his life was behind him: the only imitations he created now were by the request of the purchasers. Dunbar Sloane returned the works to Skinner. A circumspect Tyler wrote him another letter: "As a firm provenance is needed to make a completely unambiguous attribution in the case of previously unknown watercolours by an artist as famous as Charles Heaphy or at least some forensic testing, prudence requires me to withdraw my earlier letter to you. I must do this particularly as it has been publicly used to authenticate the works concerned for sale by auction in a way I had not intended when I first wrote."

The book

A Good Joke: The life and Crimes of Notorious New Zealand Art Forger Karl Sim, by Ian Dougherty, is published by Saddle Hill Press. It is out now. 

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