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Martin Pawley: bow-tie crime at last

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Government, the Olympic Games, talk shows, the art world - corruption is everywhere. So it's not surprising that it has finally turned up in Portland Place. Only last week a brilliant conman was found guilty of masterminding the twentieth-century's biggest architectural fraud by fooling the riba, arb, rfac, Arts Council, Royal Academy, aa and rac into accepting drawings of more than 200 fantasy buildings worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

Tom Ruskin, who styled himself Sir Googie Withers (although Buckingham Palace says it has no record of ever dubbing a knight of that name), paid impoverished architecture students to produce drawings of buildings in the style of Owen Luder, Ray Moxley, Larry Rolland and Sir Edwin Lutyens. He then donated £25,000 to the riba on condition that he could spend up to eight hours alone in the institute's library and drawings collection at weekends.

During these periods of what he described as 'intensive and highly reputable research', it appears that he stamped and inserted fake drawings into portfolios and altered exhibition catalogues, books and records in order to make his non-existent buildings appear genuine, before selling the drawings to collectors in London, Paris and New York for thousands of pounds. One set of drawings in the style of Leon Krier for a building purporting to be 'The Eyecatcher supermarket at Maiden Castle' was sold for $175,000 in the us.

The ingenious fraud, which spanned 25 years, has rocked the normally imperturbable world of architecture, damaging the reputations of some of the century's leading practitioners and devaluing their work. It has been a serious embarrassment for libraries, universities, exhibition organisers, publishers, promoters, boosters, cliques and claques. It has also been a serious embarrassment to the riba, which has tried to play down the consequences.

Detectives claim to have tracked down 60 sets of fake drawings, but said yesterday that they believe that at least another 150 remain in circulation. 'No doubt they are part of prized collections, able to command five- and six-figure sums,' said Detective-Sergeant Margaret Lockwood of the Organised Crime Squad. 'A drive-in McDonalds by Quinlan Terry might sound easy to identify, but not if there are a dozen of them. We think Ruskin may have been an architect in a previous life. The implications are horrendous.'

Born Lionel Blair (no relation), Ruskin left Pimlico School in 1964 with two 'O'-levels and went to work for MI5 where he met the celebrated German architect Albert Speer, who was impressed by his knowledge of architecture, although tests showed that he did not really understand the basics. Ruskin later used Speer's name as a reference when he applied for a job at the York Centre for Advanced Architectural Studies under the name van Meegeren. 'He said he had a PhD and talked very knowledgeably about advanced architecture,' remembers a former colleague, 'but he did not understand the basics.' Ruskin left the York Centre when recognised by an old acquaintance and was dismissed. According to detectives, the rest of his career is a mystery.

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