In the art appraisal business every item has a story. But not every story is true. In fact, that painting your mother told you was buried in the backyard during the civil war may have been made fifty years ago.
Enter the forgery business. Although art theft and the black market are often cited as the biggest problems in the art world, in fact, art forgery may be an even bigger problem. There is, perhaps, no better example of this than the case of the Greenhalgh family led by forger and once-aspiring artist, Shaun Greenhalgh. The family was convicted of a seventeen year forgery operation which spanned the years 1989-2006. During that time, the exact amount of forged pieces put out by the family is unknown. What is known is that Shaun Greenhalgh was prolific. In the Greenhalgh family, the forger's father, George, was the salesman. George was seemingly an unlikely art forger. Wheel-chair bound and grandfatherly, he wore thick glasses and lived in public housing. Because of that, he was never suspected. In fact, he was so good at talking and telling stories he sold many museums and auctioneers into believeing that his items were authentic.
Shaun, George, and Olive Greenhalgh
But what about provenance? Provenance is the provable successive history of ownership and it looks like the Greenhalgh family was good at faking it. Through the years the Greenhalghs established the legitimacy of their items in a variety of different ways. George's wife, Olive, said that her father owned an art gallery, there was the great-grandfather who was long dead but was said to have purchased things at auction, and a relative who worked for the mayor of Bolton and had received art as a gift for his service. The Greenhalghs were eventually caught due to the studied eye of Richard Falkiner of Bonhams auction house but not before they sold a fake Egyptian statue entitled The Amarna Princess for £439,767 or approximately $857,083 to the Bolton Museum in England.
So the question remains. If an art museum can be fooled how can I protect myself?
1. Check the provenance of the items. If there is a period of time where the item is unaccounted for don't buy it.
2. Check the Art Loss Register to make sure the piece is not known to be stolen.
3. Consult with a variety of different experts about your piece. Be willing to pay for an expert opinion
4. Look for inconsistencies. The Greenhalgh was eventually caught because of several anomalies with a piece they were trying to unload at Bonham's auction house. In fact, the cuneiform inscription contained a spelling mistake- an unlikely error for a piece that was "intended for the king."