In an unassuming garden shed that sat in the back garden of a council house on the edge of Bolton, art history was made.
There, over a period of several decades, all kinds of art; paintings, ceramics, bronzes, reliefs and sculptures were produced by the supremely talented (if somewhat deceitful and misguided) Shaun Greenhalgh.
Unsurpassed in their variety, quality and sheer inventiveness, these forgeries fooled many art critics and dealers all over the world, being sold to museums, auction houses, private buyers and collectors, all hailed as long-lost masterpieces.
His career as an ‘official forger’ began in 1989 and during the following seventeen years Shaun created and (with the help of his parents), sold a prolific amount of art worth almost a million pounds.
It’s a tale almost too fantastical to be true, but the shunned and frustrated shy young man whose art was scoffed at and who felt discriminated against because of his humble origins (let’s face it, growing up in Bolton in the sixties and seventies wasn’t exactly glamorous or exciting), decided he would prove the experts wrong.
That’s exactly what he did and he achieved it in spectacular style! The fact that his gifted hands were able to produce so many different forgeries for so long shows just how good he was. And he had the nouse to know that he had to create a ‘past’ for each piece.
The lad from Lancashire took the art world by storm, knocking up masterpiece after masterpiece until one day in 2006, when he got an ominous knock at the door. Goodbye shed, hello Scotland Yard…
The law had finally caught up with Shaun and his elderly parents; the most unlikely ring of master forgers you could ever imagine. Truth really is stranger than fiction!
It turns out a mistake in his Assyrian Relief, which was in the process of being authenticated by Bonhams for The British Museum alerted the authorities to their brazen activities.
Where it all began
Shaun’s penchant for making things began to surface at primary school, where he exhibited early talent in pottery. After a while he gave up art at his Bolton Comprehensive and started to learn on his own terms. The Bolton Museum had also imbued the fledgling forger with a love of all things Egyptian. He taught himself hieroglyphics and stone carving. He studied woodwork and attended pottery classes. As it turned out, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t turn his hand to.
Provenance is everything
Much like musical instruments, the provenance of a piece of art can massively add to its value and desirability. It’s a shame that a certain amount of snobbery comes into play.
Shaun Greenhalgh believes that people should only buy a thing because they like it, rather than for the signature on it, or for an item’s detailed history. Forgeries thrive because of the stories behind the art’s creation. I wonder if, in a few hundred years, collectors will flock to purchase the art of probably the most prolific art forger of all time?
Art critic, Gauguin fan and documentary maker Waldemar Januszczak was one of the people that Greenhalgh fooled, and can be seen here waxing lyrical about the discovery of Gaugin’s first sculpture during an exhibition celebrating the centenary of Gaugin’s death at the prestigious van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2003:
To be fair, the faun was displayed underneath bright lights and sheltered behind thick perspex, so it’s unlikely he would have noticed the composite pieces had been made separately and glued together with Araldite Rapid! The naughty “PGo” signature was a touch of genius that added authenticity to Shaun’s fake faun. The half man, half goat ceramic was acquired by the Chicago Art Institue for $125,000 back in 1997.
The Amarna Princess
Another stunning creation by Greenhalgh was his alabaster model of an Egyptian princess, carved in his shed in just three weeks from calcite, with tools he purchased from B&Q. He aged it with tea and clay. The statuette depicts the daughter of the Pharoah Akhenanten and Queen Nefertiti, mother of Tutankhamun, said to date to the Amarna period of 1350 B.C.
The idea for the provenance of the piece came after they had purchased an 1892 catalogue that listed valuable antiques that had been auctioned off in Silverton Park, Devon, home of the 4th Earl of Egremont. Among the items sold were eight Egyptian figures, which he drew on as inspiration for the carving.
Unbelievably, Shaun dropped the piece of stone and it cracked in two, but his trusty Araldite Rapid came to the rescue once again! The glued together work was authenticated by both the British Museum and Sotheby’s, and was deemed so important that it was even shown to the Queen. It was sold to the Bolton Museum in 2003 for £439, 676.00!!
La Bella Principessa, aka Alison from the Co-Op
Greenhalgh claims that in 1978 he did a drawing in the style of Leonardo da Vinci, using a check-out girl as his model. Shaun used the lid from a discarded desk that came from Bolton Tech. His dad had worked there and when he realised there were unwanted desks he bought one home for his son. The wood was used as the backing to the vellum of an old land deed that Shaun drew the image onto. It was never meant to be a da Vinci and wouldn’t have fooled any Renaissance specialists, it was more an experiment to see if he could emulate the left-handed genius.
It’s thought that Shaun produced over 120 forgeries, and it’s highly likely that some are still in circulation, yet to be discovered or else kept on the QT by embarrassed owners. Over the years many experts were duped, as were private buyers. One such buyer, William Jefferson Clinton purchased a so called bust of Thomas Jefferson in an auction. Luckily for Shaun, the Tower of London is now only open to tourists, as he sold a medieval crucifix to the royal family on the pretence that it came from the tomb of King John. It actually came from the shed on the outskirts of Bolton.
His copy of LS Lowry’s painting, The Meeting House sold for £70,000 and his Risley Park Lanx made £100,000 and was displayed in the British Museum for a time. He passed off watercolours claiming they were painted by Archibald Thorburn, as well as beautiful items of lalique glass, Chinese pots, Venetian bronzes and Visigoth eagle brooches.
The ugliness of prejudice
I think what I found so fascinating about this story is the fact that we tend to underestimate seemingly ordinary people. We judge by appearances and circumstances. Unless you’re already an established name or celebrity it seems that it’s almost impossible to make it in the world of literature, art, music and culture.
But by anyone’s standards, the range and depth of skill of this self-taught artist is staggering, and he should have been able to produce his own art and make a living with the same prestige and recognition as say Rothko, Warhol, Banksy, Gormley or Emin – to my mind he has more talent.
But his talent wasn’t recognised in its own right because the ‘experts’ were blinded by prejudice. It was this prejudice that drove him underground, where, by taking on the personas and works of masters of the past, he could prove he was every bit as good (within a whisker) as Lowry, Gaugin, Da Vinci and ancient Egyptian, Roman and Anglo-Saxon artists.
How the Greenhalgh’s were caught:
According to Shaun’s prison memoir – A Forger’s Tale – many of his creations were sold to unscrupulous dealers who made up the provenance and stories attached to them.
Facts tell but stories sell…
It’s obvious he was no angel, and I liken his father, George, to a British TV character Arthur Daley, a benevolent wheeler dealer, but he certainly became embroiled in the underworld of the art world. Waldemar Januszczak points out that Greenhalgh’s book (written during his four and half years in prison), exposes the massive murky side of an industry that is meant to celebrate enlightened and brilliant individuals at the pinnacle of human expression.
Shaun Greenhalgh features after the Sutton Hoo hoard is shown, about 23 minutes in (demonstrating how Anglo Saxon disc brooches were made) in episode 4 of Januszczak’s documentary, The Dark Ages – An Age of Light (2012):
It’s not as if he lived a flamboyant and expensive lifestyle with his considerable earnings from his forgeries; Shaun never left home. It seems he was content to live in meagre circumstances doing what he did best – making things.