Shaun Greenhalgh, an Englishman whose furtive career has been unfolding in courtrooms, newspapers and museums for the last three months, may well be the most versatile art forger in history. He can do a convincing Gauguin, an 18th-century bronze portrait, a Barbara Hepworth sculpture or a broken chunk of Assyrian wall art. He finds it just as easy to do ancient Egyptian.
A high-school dropout at 16, Shaun taught himself painting, drawing, stone carving and several other techniques. Then, with the enthusiastic support of his family, he became an art criminal.
His story has been mostly ignored in North America because journalists here fail to see it as a saga of British craftsmanship and enterprise performing in a world where these qualities are insufficiently appreciated. In their lower-middle-class home at The Crescent, Bromley Cross, Bolton, Greater Manchester, Shaun's family has for many years operated a traditional cottage industry.
Alan Bennett should write the movie that must be made about them. Shaun, 46 years old, sounds like a failure-to-launch boy, living with his parents, from the stories Bennett has written for BBC radio. Shaun's Mom, Olive, 83, and Dad, George, 84, are both collaborators -- the Artful Codgers, one London newspaper calls them. Testifying in court, Mom claimed her work was purely routine, like making calls for Shaun because he's too shy to talk on the telephone.
In truth, Mom and Dad were the sales staff. (There's a brother, George Jr., whose role, if any, hasn't been determined.) Selling the forgeries, Mom and Dad presented themselves as simple folk who had inherited art that their parents or grandparents picked up cheap, long ago.
In 2002, Dad dropped in to the Bolton Museum to ask whether anyone would like to see a 20-inch-high Egyptian sculpture, which his great-grandfather had purchased in 1892 from the contents auction at the home of the 4th Earl of Egremont. It was translucent alabaster, and in photos it's pretty.
Dad suggested it might represent a daughter of Nefertiti. He guessed it could be worth £500 ($996). He brought along the catalogue of the auction, which his great-grandfather had fortunately kept. In truth, Shaun had found the catalogue. He used the descriptive details in its yellowing pages to make the sculpture.
Experts pronounced it authentic and Bolton Council paid £439,767 to buy it for the Bolton Museum. It wasn't local money, of course; it came from a national fund supported by lotteries. The museum people were quite chuffed. They thought the piece possibly worth twice that much. One museum employee called Dad "a nice old man who had no idea of the significance of what he owned." The sculpture remained on exhibit until one fateful day in February, 2006.
After many successful years, and scores of sales, the Greenhalghs were caught out by that old devil hubris. Shaun, deeply impressed by his own talent, forgot that serious chicanery requires careful attention to detail. He sent the British Museum what was apparently an ancient Assyrian stone relief showing a soldier and horses with cuneiform writing. It looked great until someone noticed a minor spelling mistake in the writing and someone else said that the harness on the horses was from the wrong period.
The British Museum called Scotland Yard. After months of investigation, including a search of the Greenhalgh house, detectives had bad news for the Bolton Museum about their prize piece of Egyptology. They also had to inform the Chicago Art Institute that it was exhibiting a fake Paul Gauguin sculpture. The coppers discovered that Shaun found a tiny drawing of a faun in a Gauguin sketchbook and learned that a Gauguin stoneware sculpture, The Faun, had been listed for sale at a Paris gallery in 1917.
Shaun knew two sure ways to fool the experts: Create an object that scholars might be hoping to come upon some day and provide a credible provenance explaining where the work had come from.
In 1997, a certain Mrs. Roscoe (that's Mom's maiden name) sold Shaun's The Faun at Sotheby's in London, claiming she had inherited it from Roderick O'Conor, a friend of Gauguin, who had purchased it from the Paris gallery. (She supplied a bill from the gallery, forged by her boy Shaun.) A firm of London dealers bought it, to their delight, for only £20,700, and later sold it to the Chicago Art Institute for US$125,000. Chicago's sculpture curator dated it to 1886, called it probably Gauguin's first ceramic and said it was among the Art Institute's most important acquisitions of recent years. It was included in a show, Van Gogh and Gauguin, which went on to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It remained on exhibit in Chicago until the call from Scotland Yard last October. It would be there yet, and perhaps for centuries more, if Shaun hadn't messed up the cuneiform.
Shaun has been sentenced to four years and eight months in jail. Mom got off with a year's suspended. Dad came to court in a wheelchair, wearing slippers, with a shawl over his legs; he apologized for being partially deaf, due to his Second World War injury. His punishment was delayed because the judge couldn't find a wheelchair-accessible jail. Apparently there are no such place. Yesterday, the judge gave him two years suspended.
Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley from the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police believes that when Shaun's own art failed to find buyers he decided it was because he didn't know the right people. "He wanted to show them up," Rapley says.
Several police officers think the family didn't do it for the money. They found half a million pounds in bank accounts and expect to find more. All along, the family kept receiving welfare. They showed no signs of affluence -- they have battered furniture, an ancient TV, no computer. Shaun's furnace for melting silver coins (to make sculptures) sits on top of the fridge. But if they haven't spent the money on luxuries, they haven't been popping it into the poor box at church either.
Their motives may always remain unclear but the art world will wonder about them nevertheless. Playing an addled clergyman in Beyond the Fringe, Alan Bennett put it best: "Life is rather like a tin of sardines … we're all of us looking for the key."