9 JULY 1977, Page 22


John McEwen

The Fake's Progress Tom Keating, Geraldine Norman and Frank Normar (Hutchinson £5.50) The Tom Keating. Catalogue Geraldine Norman (Hutchinson £9.50) Art does not lend itself to headlines very often, so it is understandable that when an journalists make a scoop they sustain it to the last penny. These volumes mark the conclusion of the now famous revelation, by Geraldine Norman in The Times of 16 July last year, that thirteen important and recently discovered Samuel Palmers, some of which had been sold by reputable dealers for thousands of pounds, were fakes. By 10 August she had sufficient evidence to name• Tom Keating as the probable faker and, with Keating's letter of admission to The Times confirming her accusation, by the 27th Hutchinson's had them both under contract. To complete her success Geral. dine Norman subsequently received the 'News Reporter of the Year' award. The aftermath, however, is hardly worth £15 ol your cash. The Fake's Progress, even bolstered by Geraldine Norman's account of her scoop and its repercussions, is dull and uninformative and its companion volume, as she admits, hopelessly inadequate.

The trouble lies in the hurry with which the books have had to be produced and the lack of incident in Keating's own life. At the time of maximum publicity Keating was presented as a working-class hero, an amiable anarchist with a fund of tales and Cockney good humour who had jovially pulled the carpet from under the Burlington Berties of the pretentiously respectable world of art trading. If he was a crook he was a crook in the good oldfashioned sense of the word, at the expense, that is, of bigger crooks than himself, and the Normans have contrived to maintain this image in their presentation. Everything is a bit of a laugh from the Rake's Progress lay-out of the title. page to the ironic scholastic associations of the catalogue. And yet there is the serious side.

Keating, the foreword proclaims, is above all else someone who from dire poverty has 'pulled himself up by his bootstraps in the best working-class tradition.' It is when the Normans touch on their cashingin on his story in the best journalistic tradition that a note of apologetic selfexplanation creeps in. 'Having achieved, through sheer determination, the education which he looked like being denied in youth, he could quite well have written his own story.' Quite so, but the Normans felt that in that event he would very probably have not done justice to, let us face it, the selling ingredient of the book, the faking, which Keating maintains is an unimportant sidelines. Geraldine Norman is on stronger ground in her introduction to the Catalogue where she is vet)/ much the Sales Correspondent of The Times again: 'Tom Keating is well able to tell his own life story, but the life stories of his fakes are quite another matter.' Both books fail in these intentions. In The Fake's Progress there are half a dozen pages of tips for would-be fakers (using old paper, contemporary materials, for instance) and some technical advice of, in most cases, an equally rudimentary sort; and in the Catalogue only eighty-nine of a purported 2000 Keating fakes are catalogued, most of them hardly 'fakes' at all in that they are still the property of the artist. One is left with the yarn of Keating's life and a few choice titbits in the Catalogue relating to the sale of the Palmer fakes to which, of course, these books owe their existence.

Few stories survive being told on tape, but it is doubtful if any ghost could have made much of Keating's sad, but mostly private, life. He appears not to be a flamboyant rapscallion at all but a quiet, rather lonely man, who was brought up in poverty, bullied in the Navy and drifted into forgery through his experience as a journeyman picture restorer. Frank Norman tries manfully to instill a bit of fings ain't wot they used t'be spirit into Keating's narrative with frequent reference to 'billets', 'sexton blaking' (faking, Keating's singular use for this old piece of rhyming slang) and the expletive 'clink, donk, dink' and there are a handful of genuine anecdotes, but on the whole the man is obdurately discreet. There is no mention of his failure to gain a diploma from Goldsmith's, his abandoned wife and children, most of all and crucially, the exact role of Jane Kelly, the girl who succeeded in selling four of the infamous Palmers to the Leger Galleries for large amounts (E4,000 is the only one Geraldine Norman succeeded in ratifying) and who was living with Keating throughout this period. He is obviously less ingenuous than he would like the reader to think.

However, despite the fact that the material for one short book has been padded out to fill two, there are some things here that deserve mention, not least Geraldine Norman's somewhat unenthusiastically received idea that a small committee should be set up to assess the genuineness of any picture submitted to it by the public or the trade. Perhaps as long as true scholars like David Gould (who recognised one of the Keating Palmers as a travesty from seeing a Photograph of it in The Times as long ago as 1970) are there to maintain some degree of order, such official refereeing of one of the new games left without rules is best avoided. Regarding which it must be said that some of the blandness of The Fake's Progress may be attributable to the authors' fear of libel: certainly no reputable dealers come out of it particularly badly.