The garden-shed con artists who fooled the world
The incredible story of the supremely talented art forger who sold his fakes undetected for 17 years, until one slip-up cost him dear.Peter Iantorno March 22, 2015
The discovery is nothing short of stunning. A 3,300-year-old statue of an Egyptian Princess, thought to be the daughter of Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti from the Amarna period, and it has been found in a garden shed just outside of Manchester, UK.
There are only two other known pieces in the world that are anything like it (one resides in the Louvre, and the other in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), and neither of those have anywhere near the level of exquisitely preserved detail that the curator at Bolton Museum observes, as he examines the ancient relic, brought in by 79-year-old pensioner, George Greenhalgh.
"It's been in the family for over a hundred years," says the dithering, elderly gentleman, taking out of his pocket some screwed-up documents showing that it had been bought by his grandfather at auction in 1892. "I've not got a clue if it's worth anything, but I thought I'd bring it along just in case, you know?" The curator's face drops. If the statue is what he thinks it is, then it could be worth a small fortune.
After getting second and third opinions from the British Museum as well as auction house Christie's, Bolton Council part with £440,000 (AED 2.4 million) for the Amarna Princess, placing it on display in Bolton Museum and leaving the little old man over the moon with his unexpected windfall.
This all happened in 2002, and the statue stood in pride of place in the museum until 2006, when an astonishing and shocking discovery was made: it was fake.
Made over a period of just three weeks by Greenhalgh's son, Shaun, in the very garden shed he claimed to have found it in, the £440,000 Amarna Princess was nothing more than a bit of shaved-down calcite made to look old using a few basic DIY tools and a mixture of clay and tea.
Fooling thousand of museum visitors and every expert that examined it, the Amarna Princess was a masterpiece in its own right. Such was it's brilliance, the con would probably never have been discovered had it not been for an uncharacteristic slip-up, that uncovered a sensational 17-year operation, implicating the entire Greenhalgh family in a string of highly sophisticated forgeries with an estimated combined value of £10 million.
The operation was smooth as silk. It started with Shaun, a single man in his mid-40s, still sleeping in his childhood bedroom in his parents' council house. Extremely shy and lacking in any qualifications after leaving school at the age of 16, Shaun threw himself into his art, trying his hand at painting, sculpture, sketching, glasswork, metalwork... there was barely a form he wouldn't try - and go on to master.
Shaun honed his craft, and as his skills improved, he began to take a greater interest in classic art, pawing through old auction programmes lying around his parents' house and finding that he could replicate the works almost exactly with relative ease. By 1989, some 12 years after he'd left school, the Greenhalgh family decided that it was high time for Shaun to start paying his way, and his talent for reproducing art was the perfect way to do it.As Shaun's chronic shyness meant he struggled to leave the house, let alone approach museums and art dealers to sell his copies, he remained at home working on his forgeries while his father, George, was nominated as the frontman - occasionally joined by his mother, Olive. The operation started small, with the sale to the University of Manchester of a silver piece bearing an Old English inscription, that George claimed contained a relic of the true cross. Although experts at the British museum deemed it to be not an original, they concluded that the wood could possibly be genuine, so it was bought for £100.
From that small victory followed some 17 years of forgeries by Shaun and stories dreamed up by George and Olive - each seemingly more audacious than the last. The copied artworks were many, and extremely varied. There was a heavy Roman silver tray sold for £45,000, which Shaun made by smelting Roman silver coins in a small furnace he kept on top of his fridge; a clay sculpture of a goose sold for £3,000; 24 sketches said to be by Thomas Moran, sold in New York for £17,500; bronze busts of poets Thomas Chatterton and John Adams, sold for the princely sum of £58,000; and, of course, the famous Amarna Princess, fetching a jaw-dropping £440,000.
It seemed like the operation could do no wrong, as Shaun's creations were flawless, and George had the perfect act as an innocent old man who didn't seem to know what he was doing. However, even the best slip up from time to time, and in 2005, the Greenhalghs got greedy and a chink in Shaun's usually errorless work was revealed.
Attempting to use the same line about his grandfather having bought the art at auction, George approached the British Museum with what he claimed were three Assyrian stone carvings of soldiers and horses dating back to 600BC, and asked if they might be worth anything.The carvings looked stunning, but on closer inspection, the experts at the museum noticed that the harnesses of the horses looked wrong for the time and, crucially, there seemed to be a spelling mistake in the ancient Mesopotamian script. In most cases, even with these mistakes the carvings still could have been real - who is to say the people who made them all that time ago didn't make the error? But unfortunately for the Greenhalghs, the fact that these particular pieces were supposedly presented to the Assyrian monarch, Sennacherib, means that they would certainly have been correct. There was no doubt - the carvings were fake.
Suddenly everything the Greenhalghs had ever presented came into question, and an 18-month investigation saw dozens of items they'd previously sold re-examined and found to be fake.
Detectives searching the family house found piles of faked artworks in every nook and cranny, which, if sold, could have fetched up to £10 million. But what is really strange, is that even though they'd already made anywhere from £850,000 to £2 million from their exploits, the Greenhalghs continued to live well below their means, showing no signs whatsoever that they were benefitting from the masses of ill-gotten cash they'd pocketed.The Greenhalghs have always argued that they were never in it for the money, and taking a look around their small, messy house, you'd be inclined to believe them. The motivation, it seems, was the con itself - the satisfaction of creating brilliant artwork in a garden shed and passing it off as being thousands of years old.
Even though Shaun was sentenced to four years in prison and his elderly parents received suspended sentences, the Greenhalghs still had the last laugh. Why? Firstly, after an early release from prison in 2010, a now-famous Shaun launched his own website selling his art 'replicas' legitimately - including a certain Amarna Princess for £2,500.
But even more satisfying than that is the fact that during their 17 years in operation, the family sold an untold number of forged artworks to museums, art galleries and private collectors. It's more than likely that many of those will have changed hands since, therefore right now, at this very moment, there could be any number of Greenhalgh forgeries still out there and still being thought of as genuine. And for a family that thrived on the thrill of the con, that's a rather satisfying thought.