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Half man, half goat -- and totally fake

The Art Institute of Chicago bought a British forger's copy of a Gauguin sculpture.

December 13, 2007|Alan G. Artner | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — For about a decade, "The Faun," a ceramic sculpture of a half-man, half-goat figure, has been at the Art Institute of Chicago, presented as a work of the 19th century French master Paul Gauguin.

But now the museum says that the work, which it bought in 1997, is a forgery.

"The Faun" has been confirmed to be one of a long string of contemporary forgeries by the Greenhalgh family, which had been under investigation for 20 months by Scotland Yard. The museum purchased the sculpture from a private dealer in London, who had bought it at a Sotheby's auction in 1994.

"Everyone who bought and sold [the work] did so in good faith," Erin Hogan, director of public affairs at the institute, said Tuesday.

"No one could think of any other instance in which anything like this happened here," Hogan said. "So we don't have experience in this area. We're talking to both Sotheby's and the private dealer about how to proceed" to get compensated for the money it spent to buy the work. The institute did not reveal the purchase price.

The piece was researched upon acquisition, but there was no reason to believe it was other than as represented, Hogan said. The sculpture was on display at the museum until October.

Shaun Greenhalgh, who made all the objects forged by the family, confessed to authorities that "The Faun" was his handiwork. The family had consigned it to Sotheby's.

Purchasers at major auctions generally are protected by an indemnification clause that allows the sale to be rescinded if the works turn out to be inauthentic.

Shaun Greenhalgh received a four-year, eight-month prison sentence last month. His mother, Olive, 83, was given a 12-month suspended sentence. The 84-year-old father, George -- the salesman of all the forged objects -- had a deferred sentence pending medical reports.

For 17 years, the family carried on one of the most sophisticated forgery operations in modern history, faking scores of objects including antiquities, watercolors, paintings and modern sculpture. Many of the pieces were copies of ancient objects or artworks thought to be lost.

Their "reappearance" caused great excitement. Family members brought several pieces to experts and museums with elaborate stories of inheritance. Detailed accounts of previous owners also were supplied -- and also were phony.

According to the Daily Mail in London, the conspiracy earned them about $1.77 million. Had all the items forged been sold, the newspaper said, experts estimated the family could have earned as much as $20.6 million.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Hamburg's Museum of Anthropology closed an exhibition of terra cotta warriors Wednesday after discovering that figures described as originals excavated in China are new copies.

"The Museum of Anthropology greatly regrets presenting false information and apologizes for this to the public," the museum said in a statement. "The exhibition will close."

The show was organized in cooperation with the Center of Chinese Arts and Culture GmbH, a company based near Leipzig, Germany. The museum said its lawyers are examining the legal consequences.

The show, "Power in Death," opened last month and was to run through Sept. 30, 2008. A description on the museum website had said there were more than 70 authentic exhibits from excavations in China, including eight restored terra cotta figures representing characters from the emperor's court and army and two horses. It has since been removed.

Yolna Grimm, a spokesman for Center of Chinese Arts and Culture GmbH, said Tuesday that the figures were not originals.

"This kind of clay was used in those times," Grimm said. "And we can say that these figures are life-size, like the originals. But they are not originals."

Grimm said his company had made "crystal clear" to the museum that the figures were copies. The museum said it has terminated its exhibition contract with the company.

Bloomberg News contributed to this report.

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