Fake Gauguin `Faun' Fools Curators
Commentary by Martin Gayford Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) — Not since the days of the ingenious Dutchman Han van Meegeren has a forgery got so far. On Dec. 12, the Art Institute of Chicago said that “The Faun,” a ceramic sculpture attributed to Paul Gauguin in the museum’s collection, was really the work of the recently sentenced Shaun Greenhalgh of Bolton, northern England. In the course of an investigation by Scotland Yard, Greenhalgh confirmed that “The Faun” was one of the works he forged, the museum said. This puts Greenhalgh into a tiny, elite division of fakers: those who succeed in fabricating a prominent museum piece by one of the world’s best-loved artists. The “Faun” was not the greatest financial coup by Greenhalgh and his octogenarian parents, who took charge of the sales part of the operation. In terms of money, their biggest sting seems to have been the purported Egyptian statuette sold to Bolton council for more than 400,000 pounds ($803,000). In reality it was carved in the Greenhalgh garden shed. The family pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to defraud art institutions, according to the Art Institute of Chicago’s statement. Yet the dodgy Gauguin was in a different league as an achievement. It was bought and put on display by a world-renowned institution and featured in one of the most-praised and best- attended exhibitions of the past decade, “Van Gogh and Gauguin,” shown in Chicago and Amsterdam in 2001 and 2002. No Sexual Organs A lengthy passage in the catalog muses on the psychological significance of the piece in Gauguin’s life. Oddly, the text points out, the sculpture lacks sexual organs, “the often-vaunted sign of a faun’s virility.” This omission was attributed to the failure of the artist’s marriage to his Danish wife Mette and Gauguin’s feelings of jealousy for a libidinous Danish writer named Edvard Brandes. Now of course, the question has to be referred to Greenhalgh. Perhaps the missing phallus accidentally dropped off in his shed. In a way, the Bolton faker did better than Van Meegeren. The Dutch forger managed to get a number of his works accepted as authentic Vermeers — and indeed, Dutch national treasures. But he did so mainly under wartime conditions. And at least one observer, an agent for the London dealer Agnew’s, cabled “dirty rotten fake” on first sight of a Van Meegeren. Greenhalgh’s “Faun” was seen by hundreds of thousands of people, including the leading experts on the subject and the art critics of two continents, and nobody voiced a whisper of suspicion. I should include myself in that catalog of shame, as I too reviewed that exhibition. Filling the Gaps So how did Greenhalgh do it? Partly, like Van Meegeren, by supplying something that art historians expected to find. The Dutchman famously forged an entire “missing” period of Vermeer’s early work. Greenhalgh made a phony version of a subject Gauguin probably did execute. There are references in old lists to a work entitled “Faun” and a tiny drawing in a sketchbook. What’s more, it seemed to be Gauguin’s first ceramic sculpture, dated to 1886, so again, as with Van Meegeren’s Vermeers, there wasn’t much to compare it with. Lastly, it’s rather good. Even now that we know it’s not a Gauguin, it remains a haunting little object. If Greenhalgh hadn’t misspelled a cuneiform inscription in a counterfeit Assyrian relief before trying to sell it to the British Museum, “Faun” would probably have remained a Gauguin. Greenhalgh and his elderly parents were busy making and marketing all manner of fraudulent items for more than 15 years. One can’t help wondering whether there are any more such subprime objects in the blue-chip collections of the world. (Martin Gayford is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.) To contact the writer of this review: Martin Gayford in London at firstname.lastname@example.org .