Self-taught artist and self-professed forger Shaun Greenhalgh has stirred up the art world once again. His new book, A Forger’s Tale, outlines his career in faking, presumably including the scams that landed him in jail for four years in 2006. Now a high-profile artwork has made headlines – because Greenhalgh claims a picture attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci is actually his work.
The portrait, La Bella Principessa, nowadays regarded as a Leonardo masterworks, is reckoned to date from the 1490s. Historians can put a name to the sitter: Bianca, the illegitimate daughter of Ludoviko Sforza, Duke of Milan, who was married to Leonardo’s patron.
Other experts cite scientific studies that date the painting (from the materials used) as at least 250 years old. So it must be a Leonardo: Greenhalgh couldn’t have faked it. He says he could: he got hold of an old council document from the 16th Century; used a Victorian desk from Bolton Technical College as the wooden backing; and made his own chalk pigments from organic materials of an appropriate age, even digging up centuries-old clay and using charcoal made from ancient trees.
Greenhalgh has cheated people in the past. He’s served a prison term for committing a crime.
But if we look through the telescope the other way, his activity raises intriguing questions about art, the value we place on it, and the less attractive side of collectors who see art as a financial investment rather than the act of enjoying or protecting an item of beauty. The current owner of the La Principessa, a Canadian collector called Peter Silverman, reckoned he’d got himself a bargain in 2007 when he paid a little over $20,000 for the work. There weren’t many bidders, and Christie’s expert believed it was a 19th Century German imitation of a Leonardo. Silverman was sure it was a Da Vinci.
With its provenance now agreed by sufficient authorities, the painting is reckoned to be worth the £53 million rumoured to have been offered to Silverman. He says he would consider selling only if a rather better offer were made.
So how does this work? When it was just a nice old painting, of a fascinating period and very attractive (she’s a pretty girl and the portrait has a touching simplicity and that luminous, radiant quality of light typical of Leonardo at his best), it was worth £15,000. With Leonardo’s name attached it becomes worth some 4,000 times more.
But what if Greenhalgh is telling the truth? What if it is indeed a picture of a girl called Sally who worked in the Coop (whom Greenhalgh described in 1978 as “a bossy little bugger and very self-important”)?
More to the point, does it matter? Twenty years ago it was still a lovely painting, worth a price that took account of its fine workmanship and overall quality, a piece you’d love to hang on your wall. Now it’s too expensive for anyone to insure to hang in their sitting-room.
If a painting is so rare and important as to be worth £50m, by definition one of the few finest artworks of all time, does any one person have the right to keep something so precious to himself? After all anyone can enjoy Westminster Abbey, the Taj Mahal, the Alfred Jewel or the Mona Lisa, though you may pay an entrance fee. In all four cases you have to brave the scrum of tourists, but they’re there for all to see.
I can’t say I’m likely to read Greenhalgh’s book. But a mischievous side of me enjoys the way that his casting doubt on the provenance of La Bella Principessa makes it less easy for one person to profit grotesquely from a clever investment.
And if it makes the art world think again, even for a moment, about the value we put on art and what that means, maybe it won’t be a bad thing.