Royal collection duped over fake African painter Helen Anne Petrie

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Royal collection duped over fake African painter Helen Anne Petrie

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Work by Helen Anne Petrie

by Richard Brooks and Georgia Warren
August 9, 2009

The Queen"s art collection has been duped into accepting paintings from an unknown South African, giving the artist the credibility to fetch up to £15,000 at auction.

Both the Royal Collection and Bonhams, the London auctioneers, were hoodwinked over a painter called Helen Anne Petrie who may never have existed. According to her internet biography her works have been collected by John F Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra and David and Victoria Beckham.

Her paintings are also said to be in the Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

In fact none of the works of Petrie, who is said to have lived between 1933 and 2006, are in these galleries. Nor is there any proof that her noted collectors have any of her paintings. Nor, after searches by The Sunday Times in South Africa, can any official records be found of her as an artist.

The Royal Collection states in its latest annual report that it was bequeathed two of her landscapes. While refusing to comment on the individual circumstances of any bequest, it said that "before accepting any gifts, careful consideration is given, wherever practicable, to the donor of the gift and its nature".

Bonhams, which sold three Petrie paintings last September in London for £28,000, now accepts "it might have been misled to some extent about her artistic importance". The most "valuable", A Forest Track, Zanzibar, fetched £14,400.

All the website entries about Petrie, including one now removed from Wikipedia, can be traced to a Glenn Strutt, a South African in his late thirties. Strutt allegedly first tried to fool Bonhams 18 years ago. Nick Bonham, its former deputy chairman and managing director, said last week: "He came in with photos of works of art for sale. But I could see they were not what he said they were. He then started bull-s****ing that he was off to see the Queen."

Strutt has an obsession with the Queen, according to Susan Botha, who worked with him in the 1990s for International Handy Helps, an au pair business. Strutt, who styles himself "the Honourable" on his Facebook site told her that he had written to the Queen from prison, saying it was shameful that someone from the royal family was incarcerated. He also asked Botha to send flowers to Princess Margaret and the Princess Royal on his behalf.

Having been rebuffed by Nick Bonham, Strutt befriended his then wife Kaye Bonham. Two years ago he told her about his art brokerage firm, Mayfair Collection, which is registered in Switzerland, where Strutt lives. Kaye Bonham said that Stanley Strutt, who adopted Glenn as a baby in Cape Town, had asked her to be a trustee of Mayfair. "The Strutts told me about Petrie and I was led to believe she had some kudos," she said. Stanley Strutt claimed he and his son bought the Petrie paintings at auction in South Africa after her death. He added: "I provided Glenn with the finance. It was not a fortune. I was not at the auction itself." Glenn Strutt said: "We then as a family decided to buy more of her art and to research her life."

There are factual errors in Petrie"s supposed biographies. Her main website states that in 1961 she was in England where "she spent a few weeks in private tuition with Gillian Ayres". Ayres, now a respected Royal Academician, said last week: "I never gave private tuition to any pupil and I don"t know her."

In 1954, she apparently studied in Holland where she met the artist Jan Vermeiren, who assisted her. Vermeiren was then only six. Strutt claimed to have letters from people and institutions who have her art, but added: "They [the letters] are locked away in a trunk." While in Cape Town earlier this year Strutt took paintings, allegedly by Father Claerhout, a priest and respected artist who died in 2006, to David Zetler, a gallery owner. "He tried to sell them to me," said Zetler. "But they were fakes." Strutt admitted to being "something of a gigolo", but denies being a crook.

The British painter Edgeworth Johnstone, who also looks into possible forgeries, said: "All the evidence, or rather lack of it, points to this being the early stages of "seeding" a non-existent artist to build up a track record so, later on, works can be sold on the back of it." He described the Petries as the sort of bad paintings sold by Woolworths in the 1970s.

Source: The Sunday Times UK.