Pablo Picasso is widely quoted as having said that “good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

Whether or not that’s true, it’s a motto that seems to have been taken on board by David Henty, who describes himself as a “master forger.”

Henty’s forgeries of masterpiece paintings were selling on eBay in recent years for thousands of dollars each. That’s until a British newspaper uncovered what he was doing, and his counterfeiting operation was shut down. (Decades earlier, he'd done time for making counterfeit passports.)

Compare Henty’s work in his exhibit “The Art of Copying” to the originals:

The Women of Algiers, 1955 by Pablo Picasso

A Procession, 1938 by LS Lowry

But as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. People from around the world started to get in touch to buy Henty’s fake copies of famous art.

“I started getting mail through the door and all sorts of contacts to do artwork,” he says. “People have commissioned copies of Picasso, Lowry and Van Gogh.” 

Henty takes his work seriously and believes that his forgeries have artistic merit in their own right.

“I love looking at a painting and working out how they did it. I like to deconstruct the painting," he says. “If I’m doing a Modigliani, I will probably do five in a row. I get into his footsteps, and work out his little nuances and the little tricks he does.”

An art gallery in his hometown of Brighton, England, seems to agree. Next month, it will host an exhibition of his best work, called "The Art of Copying."

One of Henty's copies of a work by Picasso

Courtesy of David Henty

Henty first learned how to paint while he was serving five years in prison in the 1990s for making counterfeit British passports.

“It was whilst serving a prison term that I became interested," he says. “I’ve always liked art, but I started painting in there. … I’ve never looked back.”

When Henty was released from prison, he says he tried to make a career selling his own paintings under his own name, but nobody would buy them.

So he went back to forgery, using his newly acquired painting skills to copy the work of great artists.

Henty says he knew he was operating in a moral gray area, and that he took advice from lawyers in order to “get around the law." But he says that the people buying his counterfeits must have known they were fakes.  

“I sold a Lowry for 3,000 pounds [$4,300]. The guy knew that if it was genuine it would be worth half a million," he says. “It might have been tongue in cheek, but he was happy … he has a painting on his wall that for all intents and purposes would pass as a half-million-pound painting."    

Henty's version of LS Lowry's 'A Procession' (1938)

Courtesy of David Henty

Henty says he’s glad to finally be selling his art legitimately.

“Before I was working with the curtains drawn,” he says. “Now I’m out in the open. And that’s great.”

But even if his work is completely legal now, he still prefers to describe his paintings as "forgeries," not "copies." He sees the term as a sign of quality.

“I’m still a forger. I love being a forger,” he says. ”I love art and feel privileged to be copying the masters and doing it correctly.”

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI