Written from a prison cell, British art forger Shaun Greenhalgh‘s memoir A Forger’s Tale details his life and work , from the faux Victorian pot lids of his childhood to the Armana princess that led Scotland Yard to his door. Accompanying the book’s release, The AU Review’s Jodie B. Sloan had a chat with Shaun about his inspiration, his incarceration, and his love of art.
Your story is perhaps more widely known in the UK. What has the reception to the book been like there?
The book has been reviewed in several U.K. national and provincial newspapers – mostly in a generous way. The publishers are pleased with the response to it, and I am too.
When discussing your story, the idea that this was a case rooted heavily in class boundaries – a working class man taking on the upper class art establishment, beating them at their own game -is often floated around. Did you ever consider things in that way yourself?
I never considered “class” in my dealings. Most experts and art dealers are, indeed, from what might be seen as an “upper class” background. That was never an issue with me and I never experienced prejudice from them of any sort – just greed!
With some exceptions, the general pattern seems to be that you created a piece, hinted at a provenance, and then allowed the dealers and auctioneers and experts take it from there. As a reader, I definitely got a little bit of a kick every time someone seemed to be fooled, despite the very deliberate flaws you put in the pieces and, by your own admission, the sometimes less than passable work. Did you perceive this as something of a test, seeing how far you could take it before the pound signs in the expert’s eyes got the better of them?
Most of my later pieces were made to “burn the fingers” of the barracudas of the London art trade. Men typical of those I’d dealt with in my youth. This was the initial impetus for the faults. They would buy them at relatively knock down prices and be told they had a dud for their money when later seen by the experts better seeing eyes. Hopefully! However, this went awry several times- the Amarna princess being the most obvious.
I didn’t see it as testing anyone’s expertise. They are not called experts for nothing and I have a high regard for most of them. I can’t understand to this day why they missed such obvious flaws.
A love of art is prevalent throughout the book, but it also seems you were just as interested, if not more, in the processes and the challenges involved. Would you consider it a combination of the two that drove you down this path, or did one hold more sway than the other?
The visual impact of art has always been a big draw to me but the fascination in how these things were put together has been the main driver in all artwork related things in my life. Partly a “challenge” to see if I was capable of similar work. Mostly admiration for the mighty effort that goes into making all great art.
The book was written in prison, and details your experiences behind bars. What was it like writing a book in those circumstances? Do you consider it to have had a particularly positive or negative effect on you, your art, and your outlook on what you did?
I had a five-day- a-week job in prison and wrote the book during the quiet evenings in my cell. Prison life is – above all – boring, and, speaking personally, can’t see anything positive about it. Just something to be endured for crimes committed. Which, after all, is its purpose. Fair enough.
And finally, what is your interest in art these days? Does creating pieces still hold the same sort of thrill it did for you before?
I have done a few pieces, mostly for demonstration on TV work and sold them at local auction. They are bringing better prices now. Although, I work full time and have little time for art these days.
Shaun Greenhalgh’s A Forger’s Tale is published by Allen & Unwin and is available now.
Header Image: Shaun Greenhalgh by Fabio De Paola