“Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur”
(“The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived”)
-S. Franck, Paradoxa, 1542
To trick the art world. It has been the primary motivation of nearly all of history’s known forgers. The financial gains aside, forgers often seek to fool the art community as revenge for having dismissed their own, original creations. And the art community, its scholars, collectors, curators, and salesmen, have proven themselves a forger’s best ally. The recent conviction of Shaun Greenhalgh and his family, the most diversely successful forgers in history, provides a fascinating lens through which to examine forgery, and the art world’s unconscious complicity with it.
On 16 November of this year, the master art forger and failed contemporary artist Shaun Greenhalgh was convicted for conspiracy to defraud museums and other institutions. His octogenarian parents, Olive and George, were likewise convicted for their roles as frontmen in the elaborate con to sell Shaun’s forged creations. His brother, George Jr., awaits trial. The family had produced more than 120 fake artworks over 17 years, earning at least £825,000, and fooling experts from Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and The British Museum, among other illustrious victims. The most astonishing element of the forgeries is their breadth, the diversity of Shaun’s creations. From ancient-Egyptian to 20th century British sculpture, from Roman silver to 19th century paintings, from early-American bust portraits to Assyrian relief tablets. The Assyrian reliefs, meant to have come from Sennacherib’s palace in 700 BC
This is not a faux-pas of which Sennacherib would have approved. It did the Greenhalghs no good, either.
Shaun is likely unaware that the diversity of his forged objects, which successfully fooled experts, makes him a candidate for the title of history’s greatest forger. Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley of Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Unit remarked, “there are far better artists in this world than Shaun Greenhalgh, and far better forgers. But I’ve never come across a forger able to do that many disciplines. That’s what made him so exceptional and accomplished.” Rapley is correct, but he may make a bolder statement than this.
Shaun Greenhalgh is the most diversely successful forger in history.
One cannot easily assess the total earnings of the master forgers of whom we are aware, so gross illicit income is an inaccurate measure of success. Longevity of deceit is a category in which Shaun, with his 17-year tenure, can claim high rank. Few other forgers have had that long a run without arrest or discovery. But no single forger in history has created such a diversity of objects that successfully fooled experts. Master forgers, like master artists, usually specialize and excel at the production of one medium, one type of artwork, or even the work of one artist. And yet Shaun Greenhalgh flourished in all the styles and media to which he turned his hand. The shadow of his artistic wingspan is without equal in the world of forgery. Here are a few examples of Shaun’s work, and the con that fooled the experts. We shall then examine the con in detail, and see how the so-called “provenance trap” uses the art world’s own enthusiasm to pull the wool over its eyes.
A silver lanx, or decorative platter, dating back to ancient Roman occupation of
“Goose” by Barbara Hepworth
The sculpture of a goose by Barbara Hepworth, circa 1927. The Greenhalghs claimed that the former director of the
“Portrait of Nietzsche” by Otto Dix
This sculpted bust was a well-known highlight of an art collection in
Three Assyrian stone relief tablets, circa 700 BC and carved with figures, horses, and cuneiform writing, was brought by George to The British Museum for authentication. The atypical rendering of a horse’s harness and misspellings in cuneiform raised suspicions of the museum experts, who informed the police. The Greenhalghs created reliefs that were meant to embody a drawing made during an 1850 excavation of room 111 of the
Other forged items include a sculpture by Surrealist Man Ray, a vase signed by Gaugin, a bust of a child by Brancusi, busts of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson by American sculptor Horatio Greenough, paintings by L. S. Lowry, and watercolours by Thomas Moran. Shaun boasted that he was so good at painting Morans that he could fire one off in 30 minutes. Over 120 successful forgeries have come to light, but Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley of Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Unit fears that over 100 more are still out there, mislabeled as the originals.
There are three general types of art forgeries: 1) wholesale creation of artworks, 2) alteration of existing real artworks, and 3) misattribution of real artwork to increase value. Shaun’s works were of the first variety. But what made them fly were the provenance traps laid by the family. An understanding of the nature of the art world will help to see how well-set provenance snares can use the natural momentum of enthusiasm to further entangle the giddy willing victim.
A few terms will be of use. In art historical jargon, the word “lost” is the opposite of “extant.” An extant object is one for which the existence is documented and the location of the object is known. Lost, by contrast, refers to an object the existence of which is documented, but the object was either destroyed or its whereabouts are unknown. For most artists of the pre-Modern period, there are many more lost works than there are extant. Of the Renaissance artists, perhaps one-third of the documented creations are extant, and two-thirds are labelled as lost—destroyed accidentally or intentionally, misattributed, hidden (as happened so often during times of war), or simply and literally lost.
Take Caravaggio, for example. There are approximately one-hundred works which documents indicate that Caravaggio painted during his life. Out of these, approximately fifty are extant. The other fifty are lost. But in November of 2006, a newly discovered, hitherto lost Caravaggio was unveiled in
This story of the finding of a lost Caravaggio is a happy, and legitimate one. But the same hope for the rediscovery of lost works, and the enthusiasm that fuels it, can lead intelligent and normally cautious experts to authenticate questionable objects, and fall into the hands of forgers. The Greenhalghs knew this, and used it to their lucrative advantage.
The Provenance Trap Con
The dream of the art historian is to find a lost masterpiece. This ravenous hunger is a treasure hunt for grown-up intellectuals, with all the accompanying adrenaline and enthusiasm. The phenomenon that plagues and pleasures the art community is collective wishful thinking. The spark of hope that one is on the trail of a lost artwork produces a momentum such that contradictory clues may be ignored, and incongruous details overlooked. Examined from another perspective, it is in no one’s interest to find a possible great discovery to be a fake.
If an innocent-seeming George Greenhalgh shows up with the Amarna Princess that looks like it might be genuine, who benefits in proving it to be fake? George cleverly does not enter the situation claiming the forgery is real. He simply shows up, backed by a few tantalizing tidbits about where the object came from, culled from real provenances of a real, now lost object matching the description of the forgery in his hand.
Before money enters into it, the only beneficiary in disproving the “discovery” is an abstract sense of truth. Something that may or may not be real is determined not to be real. But what if it is deemed an original? Everyone benefits. The owner of the object now possesses a great treasure, to keep or sell for huge profit. The seller, be it an auction house, gallery owner, or other middle man, gains his commission. The new buyer, be it a museum or private collector, gains a rare trophy. Scholars are privvy to a new object to study, adding to their body of extant works and the knowledge amassed from them. The media can report on a great story, that there are hidden treasures among us, there for anyone to find. The collective wishful thinking of the art world unconsciously conspires to affirm the authenticity of newly-discovered works. The Greenhalghs noted this understandable, yet gaping crack in the armour of art authentication, and bent it to their advantage.
We have seen it in the
The Genius of the Frontman
Simply copying an artist’s work is not a crime. As long as there has been art, there have been artists copying one another. A copied work of art becomes a forgery only when one tries to pass it off as being the authentic work of one artist, when it is known to be by another. One word in the previous sentence, “known,” is key to the understanding of the art world, the trade, and the history of collecting—all of which coil up into that beautiful serpent, art forgery.
George Greenhalgh was the true performative star of the forgery campaign. His magnificent acting abilities, necessary for the success of a forgery con and yet often overlooked in favor of the sex appeal of the artist who created the fakes, is what closed the deal on objects that, when examined in the clarity of retrospect, would have fooled few. In appearance a kind, innocent old man George was a magnet for sympathy. He never states that the object in his hands is a specific real work, nor that it is real at all. He simply spools out the rope for the eager art industry to hang itself. He has planted the provenance trap. The work he proffers, which his son has created, was made to match up with a real provenance for a lost work. He dangles just enough backstory to aim the authenticating experts in the right direction, and then allows them to “discover” their way into matching this object before them with provenential bait. When they authenticate the work as the lost art indicated by the real provenance, George acts shocked. He either offers to sell the object there and then, or uses the authentication there provided to sell the object on elsewhere. The con works time and time again, as it has with all the forgers wily enough to employ it.
As the Messiah needs his prophet, great forgers need great frontmen. They are rarely one and the same, and they are rarely in the same family. Shaun and George Greenhalgh proved an effective and disgracefully brilliant one-two punch. George’s performances were calculated to take maximum advantage of the bear-traps the art industry lays for itself—those of optimism and unbridled enthusiasm.
To Trick the Art World
Few forgers practice their art for money alone. Deceiving the art world has been the goal of nearly every known forger in history. Shaun Greenhalgh is no different. If the future will permit interviews with Shaun, we may learn more about his impeti, which were certainly not, in the main, financial. The Greenhalghs made at least £825,000, and yet continued to live in relative squalor. The four Greenhalgh’s shared a tiny council flat in
The prosecuting attorney, Peter Cadwallader, spoke of Shaun as a “gifted artist.” Noting that Shaun was an autodidact with almost no training nor background in the art world, Vernon Rapley commented, “It does show a real skill with no resources and no real facilities behind you to produce things like this.” The presiding judge, aptly and poetically named William Morris, stated “this was an ambitious conspiracy of long duration based on your undoubted talent,” words which surely satisfied Shaun Greenhalgh, tainted though they were in being pronounced alongside his prison sentence. But the judge was quick to add, “I speak of your talent but not in admiration.”
Shaun was sentenced to four years, eight months in prison. Olive was sentenced to twelve months suspended. George, who is in poor health, will be sentenced after medical examination.
And yet, had Shaun not succeeded at his goal? Detective Constable Ian Lawson, another of Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques agents, said, “[Shaun] thought he was having it over a lot of people that should have known better. It is more of a resentment of the art world, to prove that they could do it.” Shaun set out to fool the art establishment that had rejected his original creations. He made a fortune and fulfilled his passive-aggressive goals. He will be jailed for four years. When he is released he will likely find himself the career of many a celebrated forger—renowned and skilled criminals, they resume the trade that brought them fame, only now announce their work as admitted fakes. Their criminal eminence makes them collectible. Their genuine ability makes them sought after. Past master forgers (Elmyr de Hory, John Myatt, and Icilio Joni to name a few) have had illustrious careers after their brief imprisonment for forgery. Some forgers have become more famous than the artists they copied. Alceo Dossena (1878-1936) did not plan to forge ancient sculpture, and seems never to have intended to deceive. But his works were of such quality that hungry collectors and museums pronounced them authentic antiquities before he had a chance to admit otherwise. His works are now admired and housed in the
Perhaps Shaun Greenhalgh will have the last laugh, after all.