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Meet the rogue who fooled the world from his shed

Memoir: A Forger's Tale, Shaun Greenhalgh, Allen & Unwin, €23.79


Shaun Greenhalgh claims that he is the creator of La Bella Principessa, a £100m drawing attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci

Shaun Greenhalgh claims that he is the creator of La Bella Principessa, a £100m drawing attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci

Shaun Greenhalgh claims that he is the creator of La Bella Principessa, a £100m drawing attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci

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.

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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.