Confessions of a Forger: Shaun Greenhalgh

Alfie Robinson 11 January 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“I made it, but I never said it was old”
Shaun Greenhalgh

A Forger’s Tale: Confessions of the Bolton Forger may be the first and last art book I will read that was written in prison. In it, Greenhalgh gives the story of his life, with a heavy emphasis on his main trade: art fakery. The immediate impact of Greenhalgh’s crime is now basically over, since he has served his sentence and is now a free man. However, as one might have guessed, much of his production has yet to be seized. I am not ashamed to admit feeling a little anarchic glee as I read the book, imagining the expensive travels of Bolton ‘antiquities’ from dealer to dealer that will continue until they are identified. Thanks to Greenhalgh, there are now many ‘works’ in circulation whose creation is more recent, and whose provenance more Mancunian, than any unsuspecting connoisseur will realise.

To the cursory observer of the art world, doubt and duplicity have all the more relevance in the light of the record-breaking Leonardo painting, the Salvator Mundi, and its bitter controversy over condition and authorship. It has to be said, though, that this ‘relevance’ is only comparative. Discussing art ‘crime’ is a very pedantic matter in comparison to other crimes. It has to be said that only a very particular demographic suffers when, say, one set of marketable antiquities happens to be fake. As anyone with any familiarity with the auction world will know, it is an economy well stocked with extremely old but extremely mediocre objects. It is rare that the ownership-status of an object of true historical value exerts a moral force, two examples being the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I or the many Benin Bronzes. Even in these cases, their moral weight is merely symbolic when compared to the human loss they witnessed. Equally, the production of fake artefacts is unlike the destruction or theft of genuine ones. Instead of dwindling the stock of accessible history, it simply adds a dubious history to the pile. As soon as the work is identified, the damage is rectified.

Greenhalgh is also broadly of this opinion, that in the moral sense, the impact of art forgery is pretty minimal. But this is a question of principle, and, distanced and theoretical as it is, it is easy to agree with Greenhalgh. I do not, however, agree with Greenhalgh’s characterisation of his production of the works- more on that later. I disagree more however with what has often been the media’s characterisation of Greenhalgh and his family. He and his set-up (a shed in his Bolton back-garden), is always described as “the ‘unlikely’ master art forger…”. But what does a ‘likely’ hidden, clandestine art forger look like? Not a very successful art forger, obviously. Moreover, one has to have a deeply distorted view of what an intelligent technical artist should look like, that is to say, a prejudice against his background, to find it ‘unlikely’. The lively discussion of materials and techniques in the book thoroughly vindicates his intelligence. For example, he describes how, in lieu of faking an ancient patina, one can always piggy-back off of a more recent, Victorian restoration. To see restorations themselves as a part of the history of an object to be exploited represents an elegant combination of knowledge and lateral thinking. As for the specifics of making, the book is indeed filled with intriguing details. The general lesson is that there are certain kinds of practical problems which will never occur in the minds of academics, and only occur to the practical minded once a project is actually attempted. Nevertheless, if you want a more complete account of techniques, you would be better off reading, say, the National Gallery Technical Bulletin, which is free to all online.

Greenhalgh is a good writer, although his prose has been described as “unpretentious” which is about as empty as praise gets. But the book is clearly well written and proofread, since it is extremely easy to sweep through its four-hundred or so pages with little strain. Indeed just because a writing style is down-to-earth does not make it easy to read, it can just as easily be dogged with clunkiness. My only complaints are the occasional ‘double-decker’ idiom like “killing two birds for the price of one” (though I suspect this may be an ironic in-joke) and Greenhalgh’s own protestations that he should have tried harder in English lessons. This was a cringeworthy piece of self-effacement because it is just flatly untrue. The reality of much of his work, trials and errors with kilns and so forth, is pretty mundane as literary subject matter goes, but the book carries them off admirably.

Aside from the writing style, there are characterisations which differ from the media’s interpretation in very stark ways. A documentary on the Greenhalgh family called ‘The Artful Codgers’ describes a scene from the trial: “the head of one of Britain’s most elusive crime families arrives to be sentenced”. The footage shows Greenhalgh’s dad, clad in a tartan blanket, and on a wheelchair, being taken out of a taxi. The callousness of this juxtaposition is extraordinary. Once you have read the book, you will realise that Greenhalgh’s father had very little to do with any of the forgeries, and was effectively only a runner in some of his later projects. It is not a “crime family”. This amazing documentary also features such lines as “rooted in the Greenhalghs’ bizarre personalities”, and points at the fact that Greenhalgh was living with his parents into his middle age. Again, Greenhalgh emphasises in his text that he was looking after his elderly parents. Also integral to Greenhalgh’s story is his relationship with, and subsequent loss of, a lover to terminal illness at a comparatively young age. This account, and this is again thanks to Greenhalgh’s good writing, is extremely moving, but dignified.

The book in general is a mostly convincing vindication of Greenhalgh’s situation. One important exception has to be made, though. This is in Greenhalgh’s curious definition of a ‘copy’. This relates back to my epigraph, “I made it, but I didn’t say it was old”. But once one has mimicked the alloy content of medieval gold, mimicked tiny accumulated scratches, when you have molded it with antler horn, and given microscopic deposits of dirt, this seems a pretty emphatic way of ‘saying it was old’. Indeed it is a much more thorough forgery of age than any ‘provenance’, past ownership records, ever could be. And yet Greenhalgh sticks to his argument which seems to run that anything without a signature is not a fake, but a ‘copy’. Also qualifying as a ‘copy’ are things which seem, according to Greenhalgh’s own accounts, to lack a prototype to be copied after, i.e. not copies by any standard use of English. But Greenhalgh can absolutely be forgiven for this kind of thinking. I believe most human beings are familiar with the desire to make spurious rules which define our less-than-noble actions just within the bounds of acceptability. And this is really the story of A Forger’s Tale: how a sensationalist media can be ungenerous to a man who had good, but not perfect intentions; and how the man himself can perhaps look too generously on an action which was bad, but not evil.