The Greenhalgh family—47- year-old Shaun and his octogenarian parents, Olive and George —lived quietly together in a housing project in the heart of Britain's postindustrial north. From the street, their red-brick house looks just like their neighbors': tatty hanging baskets and small plastic windows, flanked by chimneys and the windswept moorland. So you can imagine the police's surprise when they raided the place, back in March 2006. "There were blocks of stone, a furnace for melting silver on top of the fridge, halffinished sculptures, piles of art books and a bust of Thomas Jefferson in the loft," says Ian Lawson from Scotland Yard's Arts and Antiquities Squad. That's right—Scotland Yard. The Greenhalghs' galley kitchen and garden shed doubled as one of the most prolific—and successful—art-forgery studios in the world.
Now the Greenhalghs' production line of fake art and antiquities has come to an end. Last month, after lengthy investigations that tracked the family's frauds to galleries across the globe, a trial judge sentenced Shaun to almost five years in prison for the production and distribution of forged works of art. Olive, 82, was given a 12-month suspended sentence for conspiracy to defraud, and George, 83—who approached galleries in his wheelchair and hatched the artworks' detailed "histories"—will be sentenced in January. The family had fooled art galleries and auction houses from Vienna to New York. Last week the Art Institute of Chicago disclosed that "The Faun," a half-man, half-goat sculpture attributed to Paul Gauguin, was also a Greenhalgh forgery. The family had made perhaps as much as $4 million from their crafty labors. But, curiously, they all lived off state welfare benefits. Money doesn't seem to have been their only motivation, police say. They also wanted to ridicule the art establishment. "They were just normal people," one neighbor says. "They were just happy having a drink of cider in front of telly."
It was hubris that got them in the end. After making almost $1 million from the sale of an Egyptian sculpture in 2003, the Greenhalghs approached the British Museum with an ancient Assyrian relief and talk of another large payout. Errors in the cuneiform script—essentially ancient spelling mistakes—prompted the already suspicious staff to contact Scotland Yard. "For a while they had us convinced," says the British Museum's John Curtis, who spotted the mistake. "But this very last project was the straw that broke the camel's back."
Shaun Greenhalgh was no flamboyant Thomas Crown. A stocky, pallid man, he had never had a job and had failed to get into the Royal Marines because he couldn't swim, according to a childhood friend. But unlike many notorious forgers, who tend to focus on one genre, Shaun switched among artistic disciplines with amazing dexterity. Even the trial judge, William Morris, acknowledged his "undoubted talent misapplied to the ends of dishonest gain." The family's most recent ruse was a statue known as the Amarna Princess, a marble torso bought by the local art gallery in 2003 for $900,000. The Egyptian alabaster was authenticated by the British Museum as a depiction of the daughter of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. In fact, Shaun made it using a hammer and chisel from a nearby hardware store and dyed the marble to make it look older. One work by the German Otto Dix—not seen since it was stolen from Dresden in 1939—was "resurrected" by the family and presented to London's Tate Gallery. Working from old photographs and sketches, Shaun also turned his hand to the work of Man Ray, Brancusi and Henry Moore. His forte was the work of landscape painter Thomas Moran. Several replicas of Moran's work came under the hammer at Sotheby's in New York in July 1995 for some $35,000 and have yet to be retrieved.
The seized forgeries—now in a London vault—could have fetched as much as $20 million if the Greenhalghs had managed to pass them off as real. While they are known to have peddled 120 fakes to museums and auction houses since 1989, more may have made it into the market. A neighbor, who refused to give his name, recalls, "I was finding bits of pottery and coins around the edges of the garden over 20 years back—[things like] bits of metal with old kings on." It's difficult to tell where the Greenhalghs' handiwork has ended up. "The art market has its own momentum," says Scotland Yard's Lawson. "These items may well have been passed on through different people, so it's not just one deception. That's the tragedy of this case. The crime goes on for many, many years." The former head of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, told NEWSWEEK that he estimated 20 percent of the worldwide art market is made up of forgeries. Which means that, more than likely, there are still some celebrated works enshrined on plinths or walls around the world produced by the Talented Mr. Greenhalgh.