Meet the rogue who

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - BOOKS - EILIS O’HAN­LON

MEM­OIR A Forger’s Tale

Shaun Green­halgh Allen & Un­win €23.79

ART ex­perts had de­clared the paint­ing to be a long lost mas­ter­piece by Leonardo da Vinci, and val­ued it at €110m — but as soon as he saw the pic­ture, Shaun Green­halgh recog­nised it as his own work.

He’d been copy­ing works of art since he was a boy in the North of Eng­land, and knew that, far from be­ing a Re­nais­sance princess, the woman in La Bella Prin­cipsessa was ac­tu­ally a girl from the lo­cal shop, aka “Bossy Sally from the Co-op”.

Grow­ing up in a work­ing-class house­hold, Green­halgh didn’t even re­alise that art col­lege was an op­tion. In­stead he used his tal­ent to make things, for his own sat­is­fac­tion at first, and later for money as he re­alised there was a ready mar­ket for what he pro­duced. Over the next two decades, Green­halgh and his par­ents, who made the orig­i­nal ap­proaches to buy­ers, net­ted more than £1.3m (€1.5m) from his ef­forts. He spent the money trav­el­ling Europe to see more art trea­sures.

From bronze and stone, met­al­work and ceram­ics, to wa­ter­colours and oils, Green­halgh could work in al­most any ma­te­rial. His pieces soon be­gan to ap­pear in col­lec­tions around the world. When an Assyr­ian bas re­lief was fi­nally rum­bled as a fake, it led Scot­land Yard’s Art and An­tiques Squad to his door.

One of the of­fi­cers who ar­rested him dubbed Shaun’s gar­den shed “the north­ern an­nex of the Bri­tish Mu­seum”. He wrote this book in prison.

Some have tried to ra­tio­nalise what he did as a pro­le­tar­ian re­bel­lion against an up­per class art world, but Green­halgh will have none it.

“Art is one of those rare things that speaks to all peo­ple,” is how he de­scribes it. “Some­how it found me.”

He calls his own pieces “copies”, not fakes. Only when a piece is know­ingly mis­rep­re­sented as the work of a par­tic­u­lar artist does it be­comes a forgery. He de­nies that he did so, at least not in the be­gin­ning. He sim­ply pre­sented each piece to art deal­ers and let them de­cide what it was and how much they were will­ing to pay.

He sus­pects some of the deal­ers knew they were fake, but didn’t care so long as there was money to be made. That’s the mys­tery. Why is he branded a crim­i­nal, when they were know­ingly fuelling an art world “in­fected with de­ceit and dis­hon­esty”?

Nor is he en­tirely with­out remorse, in­sist­ing: “I’m not a to­tal b*****d.” His big­gest re­gret is that he fooled his beloved lo­cal mu­seum into buy­ing an al­abaster sculp­ture, sup­pos­edly the 3,000-year-old torso of an Egyp­tian princess, which he “knocked up in three weeks”. Remorse, though, is also tem­pered by dis­dain for the gulli­bil­ity of the ex­perts. Green­halgh al­ways in­cluded mis­takes that should have been ob­vi­ous to any real au­thor­ity on art.

A Forger’s Tale, sub­ti­tled Con­fes­sions Of The Bolton Forger, is writ­ten in a chatty, in­for­mal style, but is suf­fused with a deep com­mand of the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of mak­ing art. Art critic Walde­mar Januszczak, who writes the in­tro­duc­tion, de­tects in him “an ec­static in­ter­est in art, bulging with knowl­edge and ex­per­tise”.

Januszczak was him­self fooled by one of Green­halgh’s pieces in a pro­gramme which he made for tele­vi­sion; but he wasn’t an­gry when he learned the truth. Rather he was in­trigued. The art critic com­pares the tale to a mod­ern day Eal­ing com­edy, full of “work­ing class mischief ”, and in­sists that Green­halgh was more harshly treated than many gen­uinely dan­ger­ous crim­i­nals, for sell­ing “some ob­jects to a mu­seum that were not what they ap­peared to be”.

“Art,” he con­cludes, “has al­ways at­tracted the cra­zies — off-cen­tre peo­ple who see things dif­fer­ently.” Green­halgh is one of those ec­centrics. But is he an artist?

Af­ter his re­lease, he tried his hand at some orig­i­nal paint­ing, but says: “I felt more guilty for tak­ing money for such crap than sell­ing the fakes of yes­ter­year.” This bru­tal hon­esty is what makes him such a fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter, whose mem­oir is an in­dis­pens­able ad­di­tion to any rogues’ li­brary.

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