Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

Bonhams Oxford immediately withdrew two lots from their May 23 photography, printed book and maps sale following representations made to the department that they were probably fakes. One lot was titled Portraits and included portraits of Vivien Leigh, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Maria Callas and The Beatles. The other was titled Surrealism and included images drawn from various of McBean's famous Christmas cards and commissions as far apart as 1939 and 1984.

Biographer Adrian Wood-house, author of Angus McBean: Facemaker, says the fakes are impressive and elaborate and come from Italy. The lots, estimated at £1000-2000 each, comprised a suite of 10 selenium-toned photographs housed in a marbled paper solander box and bore what seemed to be McBean's signature in ink on pieces of paper applied to the reverse card mounts. The edition number 8/10 was written separately on each label in pencil. Literature in each box stated the photographs had been "approved by" McBean and printed under his "supervision" in 1990.

However, Woodhouse pointed out where the fakers had made errors. At the time of their printing in 1990, McBean was either in North Africa or seriously ill in hospital. He died in June that year. Descriptions of the photographs themselves and facts (including the date of McBean's death) were often in garbled English. Woodhouse said that many of the prints were about as far removed from the original McBean negatives as they could be. "They have come from copy negatives made from prints. It is my belief that the pieces of paper with the McBean signature stuck to these bogus prints originate from catalogues of that exhibition which Angus signed and left behind in Italy in 1987."