Reviewed by Harriet
The subtitle of this fascinating book is ‘Confessions of the Bolton Forger’. Does that ring any bells? If you were keeping half an eye on the news ten or so years ago, you could not have missed the story, which exploded all over the media. A quiet, pleasant-seeming man in his mid-forties was convicted of making and selling numerous fake works of art, of a huge range of periods from ancient times to the twentieth century, which he had constructed in his dad’s garden shed in the Lancashire town of Bolton. In additon to painting in oils and watercolour, he worked in a staggering number of different media, including silver, stone, marble, rare stone, replica metal, and glass. His father, who had aided him in the sales side of the venture, showing the works and their faked provenances to institutions such as the British Museum as well as to auction houses and dealers, was spared a prison sentence on account of his age. Shaun Greenhalgh, though, was sentenced to four years and eight months in 2007. This is his story, written during those years in prison.
Shaun is certainly a remarkable character. Stupendously gifted in his chosen, if illegal, profession, he has never attended art school or had an art lesson in his life. But, since he was a small child, he has always had a passion for art of all kinds. He always loved to visit galleries and look at paintings, ceramics, sculpture, and metal-work. Seeing the works, though, was never enough – he needed to know exactly how they were made: what materials were used, what processes went into their manufacture. But, though he started producing fakes – reproductions of Victorian pot lids – when he was a teenager, he didn’t set out to have a career as a forger. He longed to be an artist in his own right, but there was just one problem: ‘I have the actual ability and am prepared to put in the hard effort that all good art requires. But I lack the artist’s original vision.’ He tried a couple of times to leave the art world behind, one of which involved joining the Royal Marines, but art always drew him back. He got much of his training working in a studio dedicated, at least on the surface, to making legal copies of art works for sale. Here he learned a lot about how to use the right materials and to give his creations the correct patina of age, something he refined himself to an amazing degree, using materials bought from the DIY store B&Q:
To degrade the stone, I’d first soak strips of cotton rag in nothing more than water. These were placed strategically on the surface of the sculpture. After donning apron and visor, I would then pour liquefied gas onto them. The resulting mini-explosion would erupt on the surface in pre-arranged wear patterns blowing off a fine layer of the stone’s texture in a way that looked like natural weathering under magnification.
I suppose would-be forgers could learn something from Shaun’s accounts of his methodology, especially as he adds a helpful glossary at the end, but this is not the point of this delightfully entertaining book. And it’s doubtful whether anyone else would have the patience and application needed to produce such diverse pieces as a terracotta faun ‘by Gauguin’, a drawing ‘by Leonardo da Vinci’ (Sally from the Coop, masquerading as ‘La Bella Principessa’ and now valued at £150 million), a clay goose ‘by Barbara Hepworth’ and the alabaster model known as the Armana Princess, which was bought for £439,767 by Shaun’s local, the Bolton Museum. In any case, Shaun is not just out to parade his own cleverness, though we can’t help marvelling at it. One thing that permeates this account is the light it casts on dealers and so-called experts. All the work that Shaun and his father succeeded in selling – estimated as worth well over a million pounds – was authenticated by some of the most highly regarded specialists in the world. The Gauguin Faun, which Shaun describes as having been made in three parts and stuck together with Araldite Super Glue, was authenticated by the celebrated Wildenstein Institute in Paris and ended up in the Art Institute of Chicago. This work, like many others, had been bought for a relatively low sum by a dealer who subsequently sold it on at an inflated price. Dealers, then, appear here as not only easily fooled but also frequently ruthless in their dealings with supposedly innocent sellers. As for works that were sold to private buyers – including a bust of Thomas Jefferson, reputedly now in the possession of Bill Clinton – nobody knows what prices were paid for those. But it’s clear that the Greenhalghs were not in it for the money – Scotland Yard’s raid on their premises uncovered, among many other things, an uncashed cheque for £20,000 dating back ten years. Shaun just can’t help wanting to recreate beautiful things. Seeing a Benin broze in a gallery, he says:
Then, as now, the first thing that comes into my mind when I see a work of art is not how beautiful or fine it is, but how was it put together? Could I do as good a job? If not, why not?
And yes, that raid. The Greenhalghs were caught out when they tried to sell three Assyrian reliefs, using the same provenance as they’d used for the Armana Princess. The British Museum had examined these, concluded they were genuine, and expressed an interest in buying them. But an art expert from the auction house Bonhams was suspicious and consulted again with the British Museum, who decided to contact the Art and Antiquities Unit of Scotland Yard. Once the police searched the Bolton house and its shed, the game was up.
This is an immensely readable book, written with great honesty, wit and charm. There are illustrations of some of the pieces Shaun created, and an introduction by the art critic Waldemar Januszczak, who first, unknowingly, encountered Shaun’s work when he used to Gauguin Faun as the centrepiece of a TV programme about the artist. Januszczak admits that he believes Shaun may not have been quite as innocent as he presents himself to have been, but he concludes that there are no reasons to doubt his basic drives. ‘Britain’s greatest forger’ is, he says:
a man who was enslaved by art. Every time he tried to get away from it, it hunted him down. He fell in love. It hunted him down. He joined the army. It hunted him down. This is not a book about art as a hobby or a sideline or a profession, it’s a book about art as a motor force.
Much to think about here, much to wonder at and much to enjoy. I loved every minute.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Shaun Greenhalgh, A Forger’s Tale: Confessions of the Bolton Forger (Allen and Unwin, 2017). 978-1760295271, 384pp., harback.
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