From imitation Gauguins to a piece of the true cross, how two small-town crooks fooled art collectors around the world and built an epic empire of fakes.
On a raw March morning in 2006, a posse of Scotland Yard detectives gathered outside a terraced house near the town of Bolton in one of northern England’s most deprived counties. It is a gloomy property on one end of an arc of fifties-era units; a curve of low-income brick and stucco houses that spill into a sprawling housing estate on the town’s grimy outskirts.
By seven a.m., the five detectives, all part of the Yard’s Art Crime Unit, had sketched out a plan to search the house. Despite a credible tipoff, detectives still wondered if they’d made an embarrassing mistake. It was hard to imagine Number 17 housing a ring of sophisticated art forgers.
But what they discovered shocked even the most seasoned of the squad: Inside was a cottage industry for faking art, where a Svengali-like conman and his vulnerable son churned out forgeries that would rock the London art world.
They were the perfect team, the artist and the conman: a recluse whose unschooled talent and meticulous research produced an astounding array of forged art and a natural fraudster who saw his son’s gifts and exploited them. Together, Shaun and George Greenhalgh Sr. peddled at least 120 fakes to museums, galleries and auction houses around the world with a potential face value of nearly fifteen million dollars. Olive, George Sr.’s wife and the matriarch of the Greenhalgh clan, helped plot the backstories.
Dealings began in 1989, when George Sr., then in his late sixties, hawked his son’s first fake, kicking off a family forgery business that would flourish for nearly twenty years.
* * *
Water ran in rivulets off the old man’s trench hat and streamed down the shoulders of his khaki-colored jacket. In his right hand he held a shopping bag, the contents straining the rain-soaked plastic. Once inside the shelter of Manchester University’s imposing museum, he waited, dripping wet and bedraggled. From behind thick-rimmed glasses, steam-coated in the warmth of the lobby, George Sr.’s eyes were the same blue-grey colour as his son’s. It was his gaze that differed – less open, more calculating. Practice had taught him how to change his look: lifting an eyebrow, relaxing a frown, turning his face from ominous to soulful from one minute to the next.
He must have rehearsed his story a dozen times, aiming to get it just right, to tell it with a perfect mix of curiosity and candor: “I was lookin’ for pieces with my metal detector, up above the river terrace in Avenham Park. That’s in Preston, near me home in Bolton.” He would tell experts at the university that he’d found a treasure wrapped in a leather sack and hint that he might have uncovered something special, a piece of Anglo-Saxon history. It sounded possible, maybe even plausible. With luck and a bit of prodding, they would find their own way to identify it as an ancient reliquary, a silver chalice dating back to the tenth century. But inside the vessel was the real gem, a touch of medieval magic that could only be called inspired.
The object itself was a small, squat silver chalice, its single handle sculpted in the shape of a lizard-like beast. At its base was a carved figure of Christ seated with a staff and a large cross. Inside was a small piece of wood mounted on rose quartz with gold leaf encrusted underneath, barely visible to the eye. But most intriguing was an Anglo-Saxon inscription that ran around the rim, hinting at the wood fragment’s origins: a sliver of the True Cross.
“Oh, the old man was a liar through and through. He was clever. The piece was constructed in a way so that each bit needed to be uncovered. The gold leaf for example was well-hidden,” says Dr. David Hill, then a senior research fellow at the Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies at the University of Manchester. It’s been twenty-odd years since his encounter with George Greenhalgh, but he remembers it well.
“He came in soaked to the skin. I made him a cup of tea and looked at the piece he’d brought with him. He stood there, asking what it was, acting like a simpleton, letting me fill in the gaps. He would have loved to pass off a fragment of the True Cross.”
It was a scam that father and son would perfect over the years: copy a long-lost object and concoct a backstory cunning enough to fool the experts. On their first try, George Sr. steered clear of inventing an elaborate history for the piece, claiming only that he’d found it in the ground near a riverbank.
It was a naïve approach that he soon improved upon. Shaun, the solitary family artist, created the piece, basing it on a missing Anglo-Saxon relic known as the Eadred Reliquary. Starting with a delicately layered object seems risky, but it may have come down to whatever materials they had available. Many of Shaun’s metal objects were made from melted old coins that could pass a metallurgical analysis.
Museum specialists eventually dismissed the reliquary, but not without careful consideration. For the Greenhalghs, it was a victory, proof that father and son could confound the experts. George Sr. quickly set his son to work while he began concocting histories for the forged artwork, spinning tales of other family heirlooms and chance finds. It wasn’t long before he dared to hawk Shaun’s pieces to sophisticates in London’s high-octane art world, gambling that class prejudice and southern snobbery would cloud their good judgment. The British Museum, Tate Modern, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams were among the many institutions approached.
It was Shaun who researched missing masterpieces, poring over historical details and technical descriptions. Working from old photographs or drawings he could switch artistic mediums with amazing dexterity, easily moving from an Anglo-Saxon reliquary to nineteenth-century watercolors. He tried his hand at L.S. Lowry, Henry Moore, Man Ray, Constantin Brâncuși and Otto Dix, the variance of his work prompting Scotland Yard to name him the most diverse forger in history. George Sr. in particular had a knack for learning from his mistakes. If a fake was rejected, he’d work out a better pitch and more convincing storyline. As the Crown Prosecution Service put it: “the defendants were persistent, taking failure in their stride before turning to new fakes.”
The duo struck pay dirt in 1991 when two American buyers paid $160,000 for a Roman silver tray, the Risley Park Lanx. The piece was later put on display at the British Museum as a cast of the original Lanx.
Business thrived: a Samuel Peploe still life sold for $32,000; a bust of Thomas Jefferson sold at Sotheby’s for $77,000; a Barbara Hepworth terracotta goose was bought by the Henry Moore Institute for $4,800; and the Chicago Art Institute picked up a Gauguin sculpture for $125,000. All were fakes.
Then in 2003, the Greenhalghs hit the jackpot: a $700,000 sale to the local Bolton Museum. It was a clever combination of Shaun’s delicate craftsmanship and George’s inventive record of ownership — known in the art world as provenance — that convinced Egyptologists they had discovered a rare artwork dating back more than three thousand years. The British Museum and Christie’s, which handled the sale, agreed. The twenty-one-inch alabaster figure, known as the Amarna Princess, was Shaun’s masterwork, yet he later claimed he’d carved it in just three weeks. Significantly, the translucent statue wasn’t a copy created to look like an original. This time Shaun was working fresh, creating his own vision of an Egyptian royal princess with stunning results.
* * *
It was the largest-running forgery scam in recent history, and police estimate it netted the Greenhalghs about $1.6 million. They had over $600,000 sitting in bank accounts, but the only visible sign of their windfall was a new Ford Focus sitting outside the house. Indeed, by the time Scotland Yard arrived in 2006, little had changed in the more than thirty years the family had lived on the estate. Shaun still shared a small bedroom with his brother, an elderly aunt and his mother. Neighbors called them frugal, reclusive, peculiar, even a bit forlorn: Five adults crowded into a dingy three-bedroom council house.
“It was all a bit like the Playboy Mansion on a council estate. Old George in his room, summoning his women,” laughs one detective familiar with the case, who requested not to be identified. “Put it this way, it was not the dynamic of a normal family.”
What little is known of Greenhalghs’ home life comes mostly from school friends and neighbors. They say George Sr. had been fabricating fictions his entire life. In his younger years, he would comb the bleak, rain-soaked fields around Bolton, metal detector in hand. Neighbors remember him at the local pub, perched on an imitation sofa showing off discovered “treasures” and spinning stories of heroics and adventures no one ever believed. He claimed to have been a technical drawing teacher, although where is unknown.
“He was a nasty bugger, dominating and controlling and known as a bit of a balloon [local slang for liar],” says Brian Lomax, who played with Shaun Greenhalgh as a child. “His kids, they did what they were told.”
Inevitably, the family provoked local gossip, and a sense that lies and half-truths underpinned their strange lifestyle, with neighbors quick to offer lots of local chatter about what the family was up to behind closed doors. Police detectives scoff at that gossip, but still talk of the overpowering sense that a darker family secret propelled the crime spree. “It wasn’t our job to investigate the backstory, even if it did seem very odd,” says one officer who asked not to be identified.
But the most puzzling enigma was Shaun. How did this high school dropout source original materials and track the intricate histories of long-lost works of art? How did he shift so dexterously from one medium to next, never having taken a single art course?
Forty-seven when he was arrested, Shaun was stocky, pallid and painfully shy. He had never left home, held a job or seen much of the world away from Bolton. To his neighbors, Shaun always seemed a little out of sync. Keith Ward, one of Shaun’s few childhood companions, said his friend had stayed clear of the gangs of boys roaming the estate, mostly preferring his own company. On occasion, Ward would tag along on one of Shaun’s adventures.
“Sometimes him and me used to go off collecting birds’ eggs,” he says over sweet tea at his house, a stone’s throw from the old neighborhood.
“Whatever he did he had a keen knowledge of, even as young as we were — you know, eight, nine, ten years old. If you found an egg in the nest, sure he could tell you what it were, but also what the bloody bird ate or whether they fly so many thousand miles and migrate and all that. He knew everything about what he were interested in.”
Lynne Guffogg, a classmate of Shaun’s at school until he left at sixteen, puts it simply: “He kept himself to himself…He was invisible. That’s how he wanted it, as if he was hiding in the shadows.”
* * *
Any good forger understands that his crime is like a magic act — it demands complicity from the audience. He knows that even the most sophisticated onlookers are primed to see what they want to see. Psychologists call it confirmation bias, the tendency for people to search for evidence that confirms their preconceptions.
George Greenhalgh Sr. instinctively understood that, to fool a buyer, he needed to make them see what they wanted to see. To do that, a convincing provenance was crucial. His skills at conjuring provenance were never more evident than in the family’s final con: taking on one the world’s great museums in a scam so audacious it would bring their forging racket to an end.
Tucked away in the hidden spaces of the British Museum, the Department of the Middle East snakes its way behind a maze of marble galleries. Here, John Curtis, one of England’s foremost antiquities experts, reigns over a staff of twelve and a collection of some 330,000 objects.
Curtis’s first contact with the Greenhalghs was a handwritten letter from George Sr. The Department Keeper (curator) judged this opening gambit as genuine, even guileless, with its spidery scrawl bobbing over and under the faint blue lines of notebook paper. The letter offhandedly suggested that three stone reliefs, purportedly discovered in the Greenhalgh’s garage, could have been picked up by his great-grandfather at an estate sale. He claimed he might even have an old catalogue from the sale.
It was a plan right out of the forger’s handbook: track down an authentic provenance for an object that has long been lost to the art world. Forge a fake matching the description and present it to the experts with a tantalizing clue that will lead them to piece together its history.
Hooked, Curtis suggested George bring the reliefs to the museum. But it was Shaun, thrust into the role of salesman for the first time, who brought the artwork to London.
Three museum assistants carried the bulky cargo into a small cellar in the bowels of the museum. Ignoring a cluttered wooden table, Curtis told his assistants to lay the objects out on the concrete floor. In that moment, looking down on the fragments, Curtis and his crew must have seen the possibility — if only for an instant — of an extraordinary find, the discovery of a piece of art that for centuries was believed to be buried in the desert sands of northern Iraq.
At their feet were three stone reliefs. They varied in size and condition, but all three appeared to be Assyrian, about 2,700 years old. If authentic, they would earn the owner a small fortune in the art market. Their value to the museum would be inestimable. But it was the smallest of the three reliefs that grabbed the staff’s attention. The small stone fragment seemed to precisely match a pencil drawing stored out of sight in the museum’s archives. It had been rendered in 1845 by Austen Henry Layard, one of the great archaeological pioneers of the Victorian Age.
“Everybody knew this piece, everybody knew the Layard drawing. We knew it was probably never taken out of the ground by Layard because it was so fragile,” says Dr. Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures at the British Museum. “So when [this fragment] showed up, looking as if it had survived with just a bit missing at the edge — well, it was marvelous.”
But for Finkel, the thrill didn’t last long. “There was an initial rictus of amazement at seeing this thing and then delight and excitement, and then there was an interim period where the scales fell from people’s eyes,” he says, explaining the intricacies of discovering flaws in the cuneiform inscription.
Brushing back his long white hair, tucking a piece or two back into a ponytail, he put it bluntly: “The old man played us. The con was laid like a mousetrap with cheese, and we were caught like that,” he says, slapping his weathered hands together dramatically.
In the end, it was a tipoff from the museum that finally rumbled the Greenhalghs and brought Art Squad to Bolton.
* * *
Once over the threshold at Number 17, Art Squad detectives took a few minutes to adjust to the gloom. The morning light was dim and low wattage bulbs barely lit the small, untidy rooms. “We felt like we’d stepped into a time warp,” says Detective Constable Halina Racki, describing a house the modern world had left behind: shabby, outdated and worn.
But it was the clutter that shocked the team: piles of books, old magazines, papers and cartons – a hoarder’s paradise.
In the tight storage space running alongside the kitchen, detectives stumbled across a huge array of forging tools. Slabs of marble, limestone and alabaster crowded the alleyway, its wooden shelves packed with pots of paint and scraps of metal. And then there was the art. Two alabaster Egyptian sculptures were tossed in among the shoes of an upstairs cupboard — a third, the Amarna Princess, was still drawing crowds at the Bolton Museum.
The bust of an Egyptian pharaoh was stashed under a backyard bench. Half-finished statues and practice artifacts were everywhere, stuffed into wardrobes and hidden in drawers.
Upstairs, still dressed in his cotton long johns, George Sr. sat tucked up in bed.
The Art Squad combed through the property for nearly six hours. They loaded evidence – sixty bags in all, from sandwich-size to garbage sacks. Shaun quietly stood by as the police tore through the house.
“He didn’t argue. He mostly watched,” says then Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley who headed the Art Squad at the time of the Greenhalgh investigation. “He was clearly the junior partner in the family and he behaved like it.”
When they moved out to the garden, they made their way around the scrappy plot of land, its bald lawn strewn with mismatched leftovers of years of artistic tinkering. In one corner stood a twelve-by-fourteen-foot weather-beaten shed. Shaun stood by quietly as they raided his private domain, watching as detectives bagged the detritus of two decades of unrecognized creativity.
Despite the bags of material collected from the Greenhalgh’s house, an “Aladdin’s cave of evidence” as Rapley put it, Shaun may well have known that to build a criminal case against his family the police needed to prove both he and his parents knew the objects they were selling were fakes. At that point, much of the case hinged on what Shaun, and later his parents, were prepared to tell them.
Police conducted over thirty hours of questioning in six interviews, most of which found Shaun steadfastly sticking to the family storyline that the art had been inherited. Art Squad detectives remembered the frustration of letting Shaun go home to the Greenhalghs at night, knowing he’d be back again, swearing the family knew nothing of the forgeries – his father likely having coached him.
George Sr., meanwhile, insisted in four separate interviews that he had no idea the artwork they had sold for hundreds and thousands of dollars was in fact created in the back garden by his youngest son. When officers asked if Shaun might have made the forged Assyrian reliefs, George said, almost with a smirk in his voice, “My lads can hardly knock a nail in.”
Finally, on September 5, 2006, without warning or explanation, Shaun confessed. He simply changed his story. On the tapes, his accent is northern – a broad Lancashire accent. He stumbles at times and catches himself, his determination to take all the responsibility both touching and aggravating.
“I haven’t involved anyone in me family. I’m not covering up for anybody…I’ve made all of these things, they’ve all been my idea.” Shaun blurts out. “I’ve said all I can say. I’ve made them. It’s my fault and I’ll just have to take the blame for it.”
It was a well-rehearsed script that was likely stage-managed by George Sr.
“It was a complete turnaround that we weren’t at all expecting,” says Racki. “It seemed the result of a family consultation where the family decided that Shaun should take the blame for everything. And the thing is, if George Sr. had taken the blame, I doubt either one would have ever ended up in prison.”
“We had a confession, but it was disappointing. In the end it’s not the full story, is it? We would have liked the truth,” adds Racki.
Shaun was eventually sentenced to four years and eight months in prison, serving half of his term before an early release in 2010. George Sr. and his wife Olive both received suspended sentences for their roles in the con. The family was also ordered to pay compensation of about $600,000.
George Sr. was in his eighties at the time of his arrest. He came to court in a wheelchair, playing to the sympathy of the judge. If he had taken the blame, claiming his son was merely an accomplice, it’s unlikely he would have received more than a suspended sentence or that Shaun would have seen jail time.
Once he had confessed, Shaun offered more details of how the fakes were created, but the most pressing questions about the Greenhalgh case still niggle. Were hints of a behind-the-scenes puppet master guiding Shaun’s artistic endeavors to be believed? Where had much of the money gone? And what of talk about dozens of Greenhalgh fakes that have yet to be uncovered?
There was also little insight into the family’s criminal enterprise. In police interviews, Shaun remained vague about his artistic ambitions, revealing only hints of bitterness that he was never able to study art or sell his own work.
“I think the reason I’ve done it, it’s my lifestyle. I..I..I have no friends,” said Shaun. “I..I never go out or bother with anybody. It’s just that I find people difficult to deal with. I tried for years to make my way, nobody were interested in the work. If it was ancients or any other name they were all eyes and ears.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve been absolutely amazed they fooled anyone, because they didn’t fool me. I really only took the fakes to museums to see what they had to say before I sold them. I was shocked when they wanted them. Once that happened, I couldn’t turn back, could I?”
* * *
The case, now nearly a decade old, came back into focus when George Greenhalgh Sr. died of natural causes in November 2014. He was ninety-one years old. Few expect his son Shaun, now in his mid-fifties, to step out from the long shadow of his domineering father, but for those who followed the original story it’s tempting to imagine him charting his own creative path and becoming an artist in his own right.
“The first thing I wondered when I heard the news was, what will Shaun do now?” says Rapley. “Whatever happens, I expect all our questions will remain frustratingly unanswered and that no one will ever get to the bottom of their deep family mystery.”
The family lawyer, commenting in a brief interview, echoes that view: “Shaun has no interest in speaking to the press or revealing his thoughts for general dissemination. He will be as he was. Life will go on as it did before.”
Not long after prison, Shaun did something unexpected, seeming to signal he had broken free of his father’s control. In 2011, he launched a website to sell his own original artwork, although the site quickly folded. Two years later he made a brief appearance as a “craftsman” in the BBC documentary, “The Dark Ages: An Age of Light.” He was filmed recreating an Anglo-Saxon artifact, an ironic throwback to his earliest work as a forger. Since then, little has been seen of Bolton’s most reluctant celebrity.
His father’s death may grant Shaun some sense of freedom and a chance to create original art, but after years of keeping secrets, obeying orders and diverting his own artistic journey, he may prefer to live his life quietly, hidden in the shadows.