The Philosopher's Eye

News and brain candy for the philosophy community

Shaun Greenhalgh: Master Forger

In January and February of this year the Victoria and Albert Museum ran the Metropolitan Police Service’s Investigation of Fakes and Forgeries exhibition that showcased around 100 forged paintings and sculptures. The most infamous works on the display were those of Shaun Greenhalgh who is currently serving a four year eight month prison sentence for forging works over a 17 year period from 1989 to 2006. Among the many works that Greenhalgh created and sold was a small alabaster statue named the Armana Princess which was sold for £440,000 to the Bolton Museum. The museum believed the statue to be an authentic Egyptian art piece from the reign of Akhenaten (ca. 1352-1336 BC). Another prominent fake is The Faun (pictured above) which was attributed to Gauguin and purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago from a private dealer who also believed the piece to be authentic.

While Greenhalgh has obviously fallen foul of the law he does have a number of fans who highlight the artistic merit of this self-taught forger’s works and who seem more upset at the gullibility of the art experts who originally authenticated the pieces. Since Greenhalgh’s sentencing there have been opinion pieces in support of his talents and even a Facebook page created to campaign for his freedom. The question that arises is, given that Greenhalgh’s pieces obviously do have some artistic merit, what aesthetic (or artistic) properties does a forgery lack that the genuine article would have?

Alfred Lessing, in a 1965 article, claimed that forgeries do not lack the aesthetic properties that original have. This is because, on his account, the various aspects of production of the work are irrelevant in relation to the aesthetic experience that the work can provide. For this reason he praises such forgeries as Van Meegeren’s painting The Disciples at Emmaus as a monument to the artistic talents of Vermeer (who Van Meegeren was imitating) as much as Vermeer’s own talents.

Lessing’s view takes a rather restricted notion of aesthetic properties that includes only what can be perceived in the work. More recent views have either included artistic properties (including aspects related to the art-historical circumstances in which the work was created as contributing to the appreciation of art) alongside aesthetic properties or else broadened their usage of “aesthetic” to include these aspects. Taking into consideration the tradition within which the piece was created and its impact on our assessment of the skill employed by the artist as well as the level of originality and creativity in relation to other works of that kind at that time means that that fact that a work is a forgery does impact our appreciation of the work. The problem as Mark Sagoff (1976) points out is that a deceptive forgery is placed in the wrong category for art evaluation. The kinds of features that are typically appreciated in one style of art are not necessarily appropriate in assessing the works of another style. Based on this the exhibition mentioned above that groups all of these fakes together provides a forum where these kinds of works can be appreciated for their own peculiar artistic merits.

Related articles:
Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Value
By Robert Stecker, Central Michigan University
(Vol. 1, February 2006)
Philosophy Compass

4 comments on “Shaun Greenhalgh: Master Forger

  1. Anonymous
    June 12, 2010

    love this

  2. Reminds me of the anecodte about Picasso declaring some of his own works to be fakes:
    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2007/01/painting_fakes.html

  3. john chen
    June 20, 2010

    I just watched a documentary on this called “Artful codgers” its all about Shaun Greenhalgh.

    To be honest I really respect this man, yes he lied and sold his work under false pretense, BUT the fact that he was able to fool so many so called “Experts” meant that he had unreal skills.

    Artistic, skillful and dedicated, he was able to produce art, which at certain times were called masterpieces by all.

    Could you imagine if Shaun was born into another environment, could you imagine if he was brought up by a different family environment. He could be hailed as one of our modern masters.

    I do feel sorry for him. But in the end he did do the wrong thing.

    The funny side of the story is that they never really spent the huge amount of money which they got for the forgeries.

    In the police video of their home, it was a small cottage with 5 people living in a 2 bedroom home…. How Sad…

  4. elst1010
    September 11, 2014

    I hope the movie makes are working on film – unbelievable real story. For Shaun I hope when he gets out will continue creating his own art and will receive the recognition for his such a rare talent – which he would deserve.

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