A tal­ent for the finest fak­ery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ash­leigh Wil­son

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

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