A talent for the finest fakery
Beyond the cynicism, Greenhalgh’s account is fuelled by inquisitiveness. The art can be faked, but the knowledge less so. He once came across some bronze plaques from Benin in a private home: “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?”
There’s a glossary explaining everything from alkaline glazes to kaolin, quenching and ushabtis. The book is packed with technical information, and there’s probably nowhere else you can get fraudulent methodology laid out like this: 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 miniexplosion 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.
If they haven’t already, government agencies should seek out Greenhalgh for help. There’s a precedent: fraudster Frank Abagnale Jr, played by Leonardo di Caprio in Catch Me If You Can, went on to advise the FBI. Greenhalgh makes his case: “There’s more to art than just art history. Those export bodies probably need a few practical people on their staff, as well as academics.”
The writing here is unpretentious, self-deprecating and chatty, sometimes too much so. We’re left with no doubt about his enthusiasm, since he keeps telling us that this or that is “one of my favourites”. (Pisano is his favourite artist of the Middle Ages; Roderic O’Conor is one of his favourite Irish artists; the American west is one of his favourite subjects, and so on.)
This book could easily lose 100 pages. But maybe it’s just all part of the plan. You could almost be at a Manchester pub, drinking a pint with a guy who lives with his parents telling you about how he beat the art world. Then again, maybe it’s all an act. That’s the problem with confidence tricks: it’s hard to know where the fraud stops and the honesty begins.
is The Australian’s arts editor and author of Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing.
Shaun Greenlaugh and his fake Leonardo