False modesty of the artful forger
Memoir: A Forger's Tale, Shaun Greenhalgh, Atlantic, hbk, 384 pages, €23.79
Frances Wilson enjoys a masterful masquerade by an artistic folk hero.
A Forger's Tale was written in a British prison while Shaun Greenhalgh, now aged 57, served four-and-a-half years for selling fake art treasures. Seen as a crook by the "experts"he fooled and as a folk hero by the rest of us, Greenhalgh's story is a forger's manual, a book about the class divide, a satire on the art market, and a celebration of that great institution, the garden shed.
The shed behind the Greenhalghs' Bolton council house in Greater Manchester was described by Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques squad, who raided the place in 2006, as "the northern annex of the British Museum" and was reproduced, in the manner of Tracey Emin's bed, for London's V&A's Fakes and Forgeries exhibition in 2010.
It was here that Greenhalgh, full-time carer to his elderly parents, produced objects like the Risley Park Lanx, a silver "Roman" tray subsequently donated to the British Museum; the Amarna Princess, a headless Egyptian statuette carved from translucent alabaster and bought by Bolton Art Gallery; a ceramic sculpture of a faun identified as the work of Gauguin and displayed in the Art Institute of Chicago; a duck assumed to be by Barbara Hepworth and sold to the Henry Moore Institute, and a portrait called La Bella Principessa believed until now to be by Leonardo da Vinci.
The Principessa, Greenhalgh reveals in these pages, was painted when he was 18 on a piece of 16th-century vellum found in an antique shop. His model was "Bossy Sally from the Co-op", a checkout girl with classic 1970s features. He sold the picture as a homage for £80 and has no idea how it ended up as a long-lost Leonardo worth £150m, a price Greenhalgh considers, with characteristic irony, "crazy".
From a tightly knit working-class family, Greenhalgh had no artistic training and left school aged 16. He first encountered art in books, where his response was not to emote over the beauty of the object or image but to wonder how it was done, to read everything he could about it, and to see whether he could do it, too.
Aged 14, he carved a pharaoh's head out of a lump of lapis lazuli found in a market. His rhetorical trick throughout A Forger's Tale is to turn the sublime into bathos: the mini-drill he used to do the carving was from Argos. Allergic to the snobbishness of art historians, he reduces his critical lexicon to a few words. The Bernini canopy over the papal altar in St Paul's Cathedral in London, for example, is described as "crappy".
Greenhalgh's modesty is disarming, and disingenuous. "Too thick" to be an architect, he lacked the originality to be an artist. It was, he says, through lack of talent that he became an artist's double, a professional shape-shifter. But he was obsessed with forgery. He tried other jobs but "all the paths seemed to lead back to copies".
He calls himself a "manufacturer of crap", a bloke with a chisel or a brush whose technique is to "blast away" at whatever he is making without employing too much thought - but this is all bluff. Greenhalgh knows how good he is, and delights in revealing his secrets. To draw an Old Master, for example: "Just make up the ink - iron sulphide, gum arabic, boiled with crust oak galls, sieved and left to cool. Then [take] a quill, freshly plucked from a swan's bottom."
The book's best moments are those in which the fake exposes the frauds. In a set-piece of comic theatre, Greenhalgh travels from Bolton - a place "many readers will know through fat Northern comedians taking the p*** out of it" - with his Assyrian relief panels or whatever, wrapped in a tartan rug. He then secretly records the boffins "buzzing" around his work, pointing out details that the cutter had "got wrong" while informing Greenhalgh, in patronising tones, that he has indeed stumbled on a genuine item from the palace of an Assyrian king.
He never properly explains why he followed the path he did, but it was presumably because of the pleasure of scenes like this. "The most entertaining part," he writes, "was watching the spectre of greed take them over whenever they imagined they had recognised something of great worth being proffered to them by an ignoramus who didn't know its value."
He doesn't say how much he earned, but it was way less than it should have been. Pieces he sold for hundreds of pounds were invariably sold on for hundreds of thousands. Money, however, was of little importance to him. He lived with his parents, and the only luxury he bought himself in 30 years was a trials motorbike.
"Anyone reading this book," Greenhalgh notes, "will know right away that I should have taken more notice of English at school." This is exactly what I did think, but feigning ignorance is also, we know, his favourite ruse. Presenting himself to the reader as undereducated, his writing is unstructured, repetitive, contradictory, digressive, and peppered with insincere refrains like "But what do I know?" Whether he is writing his confessions or presenting an Etruscan treasure to the British Museum, Greenhalgh's genius lies in his performance of amateurism.
The result is a masterpiece of masquerade: A Forger's Tale is a brilliantly wily reflection on the seductions of art and corruptions of the art world.