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.”