Forgery bombshell

Johannesburg - Hundreds of artworks by world-renowned artist Father Frans Claerhout will soon be worth virtually nothing. In a frank interview, the Belgian painter of Tweespruit in the Free State admitted that a trusted friend has been falsifying his art for years.

The forgeries, which have apparently been in circulation for three years, will be a blow to Claerhout collectors. The humanitarian artist, who has been painting since 1953, leads a solitary life at a Roman Catholic convent outside Tweespruit. He gives most of his money to the church.

Claerhout was visibly sad when he talked about the falsifying of his paintings. He admitted for the first time that Rosa Jonker, a middle aged Bloemfontein businesswoman, was behind the falsification of some of his paintings. She had been like a daughter to him over the past 45 years, he said.

Confessed

"Rosa came to me to confess. She wanted to shoot herself. This has been going on for years. Hundreds of my works have been falsified."

Claerhout (83) says the fraud is not limited to Jonker and Bloemfontein. He knows of at least three other places in the country, including Jeffreysbay in the Eastern Cape, where his paintings and sketches are being falsified.

A tired Claerhout, whiskey in hand, says he doesn't know why he has kept quiet about the scam for so long.

West Rand police have since launched a hunt for the false Claerhouts. Detectives recently went to Tweespruit to discuss the case with Claerhout personally.

Father Michael Bissonnette, an old friend and colleague of Claerhout who also lives at the convent, said several artworks have been pointed out to the police that are definitely not originals. "Among the works there is a total falsification and one sketch that has been coloured by someone else."

Bissonette says a sculpture of a donkey signed by Claerhout, is also not his handiwork. "I told father Claerhout not to sign it. It's not his work. It was done by some black men in the area."

Claerhout initially said the donkey sculpture was "Rosa's project" and that he wanted nothing to do with it. On Saturday, he said that the donkey sculpture was indeed his own work.

Bissonette said Claerhout was being used by people "to do things" that are not completely honest. "He is too good a person. He can't say no. Jonker is one of the people using father Claerhout for her own selfish reasons." Jonker recently released a statement to all dealers in which Claerhout vouches that all the Claerhouts sold by her (Jonker), are authentic. It is now evident that this is not the truth.

'Must come to an end'

"Father Claerhout will never refuse to draw something for friends or family. Over the past couple of years, he has only been doing charcoal sketches.

"These sketches are now being coloured by someone else and then sold for thousands of rands. For the sake of his art, his good name and the church, this must come to an end."

Bissonette says Jonker has been getting sketches from Claerhout for years. "No one knows what hold she has on him. Now and then she brings him a bottle of whiskey or a present."

Apart from the falsified work, sold at about R10 000 a piece, colour photostats of Claerhout's best paintings are being burnt into canvas through a heat process on special paper. They are also being sold as originals.

Inspector Reggie Kilner, from Westonaria, confirmed that several cases of fraud involving Claerhout artworks are under investigation.

"We suspect Claerhout artworks are being falsified on a massive scale." Bank statements show Jonker recently started paying back large sums of money to people who complained to her about falsifications.

Piet Burger, a businessman from Cape Town, received back R56 000 in this way.

Jonker, who apparently has a predilection for gambling, refuses to discuss the allegations. Last week she said she knew nothing of falsified Claerhouts.

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