Ash­leigh Wil­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Creativ­ity may well be 90 per cent per­spi­ra­tion and 10 per cent in­spi­ra­tion, but that 10 per cent is vi­tal. It’s why some artists en­dure. Orig­i­nal­ity mat­ters. If you’re just an echo of the past, no one’s likely to pay much at­ten­tion. I’ve of­ten seen it in jazz, where a sax­o­phon­ist might have tech­nique to burn but if he sounds just like John Coltrane, then so what?

Shaun Green­halgh, one of the world’s great­est art forg­ers (that we know of), is a tal­ented crafts­man with a rich knowl­edge of art. His ex­per­tise is im­pec­ca­ble. To read him ex­plain the sub­tleties of stone or bronze or por­phyry, to say noth­ing of the alchemy re­quired to give these ma­te­ri­als an “aged” qual­ity, it’s clear he knows his stuff. But he doesn’t con­sider him­self an artist. “I have the ac­tual abil­ity and am pre­pared to put in the hard ef­fort that all good art re­quires,” he writes in his mem­oir A Forger’s Tale. “But I lack the artist’s orig­i­nal vi­sion.”

The hu­mil­ity only goes so far, though: “I think many in the field of con­tem­po­rary art have this vi­sion. But they lack the abil­ity to put it down in a proper man­ner.”

Green­halgh be­gan writ­ing this book be­hind bars. He was serv­ing four years and eight months for what po­lice called a “most sus­tained and di­verse” case of fraud. He had traded in dozens of fake art­works over al­most two decades, de­ceiv­ing the Bri­tish Mu­seum and the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago along the way.

The mas­ter­mind is an un­likely folk hero. Green­halgh is a sub­ur­ban hob­by­ist, hardly a smooth, Thomas Crowne-style crim­i­nal. He made top art ex­perts look fool­ish while liv­ing in a council house with his par­ents in Bolton, a Greater Manch­ester town fa­mous for “fat north­ern co­me­di­ans tak­ing the piss out of it”. (His par­ents were charged in con­nec­tion with the fraud as well.)

His ca­reer be­gan in­no­cently enough. He sold im­i­ta­tion Vic­to­rian pot lids, then learned about pot­tery, paint­ing and sculp­ture. He tried sell­ing work un­der his own name but not many people were in­ter­ested. At this point, plenty of artists will sym­pa­thise. But Green­halgh was good at im­i­tat­ing others, so he did that in­stead. His jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is prac­ti­cal: he loved art, so this meant he could keep work­ing in the busi­ness he loved.

He also claims to have op­er­ated, at least ini­tially, in the zone be­tween copy­ing and fak­ery. (It’s not il­le­gal to copy art; the crime is when you pass it off as the real deal.) This seems a bit rich, since he’s soon mak­ing fakes full-time, along with prove­nances to ex­plain their ori­gins.

Deal­ers tried to take ad­van­tage, talk­ing down in­di­vid­ual works be­fore sell­ing them as gen­uine. One of them even copies his copy and sells him back the in­fe­rior ver­sion. “Those steeped in the art busi­ness taught me most of what I know about fakes and fak­ery. And as long as I was putting it into good use for their ben­e­fit, that was OK.”

Green­halgh was di­verse and pro­lific, mak­ing an­cient Egyp­tian carv­ings and Ro­man sil­ver­ware and Chi­nese bronzes and Chelsea porce­lain and oil paint­ings. He passed off a ce­ramic faun as a Gau­guin. His ter­ra­cotta bust of one US pres­i­dent, Thomas Jef­fer­son, is said to have found its way to an­other, Wil­liam Jef- A Forger’s Tale: The Mem­oir of One of Bri­tain’s Most Suc­cess­ful and In­fa­mous Art Forg­ers By Shaun Green­halgh Allen & Un­win, 384pp, $32.99 fer­son Clin­ton. His 12th-cen­tury sil­ver Christ ap­par­ently ended up in the royal fam­ily col­lec­tion. And he says a Leonardo da Vinci draw­ing val­ued at £150 mil­lion was ac­tu­ally his work: Sally from the Co-op in­stead of La Bella Principessa.

Green­halgh says his fakes al­ways had flaws that ex­perts should have no­ticed. He feels bad about mis­lead­ing his lo­cal mu­seum, but oth­er­wise he’s in­cred­i­bly cyn­i­cal. “If some­one needs a piece of pa­per to tell them a work is a mini-mas­ter­piece, then, in my opin­ion, they are un­wor­thy of pos­sess­ing such a thing. Not a gen­uine one at least.”

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