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Taken in by a complete fake

Little knowledge about Gauguin's ceramic works and a believable provenance add up to an art world fooled.

December 21, 2007|Charles Storch and Alan G. Artner | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- On an 18 1/2 -inch ceramic sculpture of a faun in its collection since 1997, the Art Institute of Chicago had hung many theories about the artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and his life in Paris in the 1880s. That the small figure of a half-man, half-goat could bear such scholarship must have delighted the living English family of forgers and frauds who had fashioned it and made goats of a worldwide art establishment that had accepted it as a Gauguin.

The deception, made known to the institute in recent weeks and to the public last week, exploited the soft spot in the world's body of knowledge about Gauguin: his early foray into decorative art with works in ceramics. Extrapolating from their broad knowledge of Gauguin's works on paper and canvas, institute experts on post-Impressionism, perhaps partly in their enthusiasm over having acquired a "lost" work and the first Gauguin sculpture, found sound explanations for anomalies in the appearance of "The Faun."

"Sometimes, a lot of knowledge colors the way you look at something," said Douglas Druick, who heads the museum's departments of prints and drawings and of Medieval through Modern European painting and sculpture.

Sitting in his small, book-filled office, Druick said he had been shocked to learn from Scotland Yard that "The Faun" was one of numerous fakes and forgeries that had been made during the last 17 years by Shaun Greenhalgh, 47, of northern England, and foisted on auction houses and museums by his parents, Olive and George Greenhalgh.

Foiled in an attempt to sell a fake antiquity, Shaun Greenhalgh last month received a prison sentence of four years, eight months. His mother, 83, was given a 12-month suspended sentence, and his father, 84, had a deferred sentence pending medical reports.

Druick had brought "The Faun" to the institute's attention. In 1994 he had noticed its inclusion in a catalog for an auction that had taken place at Sotheby's in London. A note in the catalog indicated the piece had been authenticated by the authoritative Wildenstein Institute in Paris. The consignor of the work -- Olive Greenhalgh, using her maiden name, Roscoe -- had offered Sotheby's an invoice showing that "The Faun" had been sold by a Paris gallery in 1917 to Roderick O'Conor, an artist friend of Gauguin's.

In 1997, Druick encountered the piece in the London home of dealer Libby Howie, who had bought it at the auction, reportedly for about $33,000. The institute then began researching the piece with an eye toward acquisition. The museum refused to disclose the price it paid her and would not comment on a report by the Art Newspaper that it was about $125,000.

Institute scholars discovered a listing in a 1906 Gauguin exhibition in Paris of a faun ceramic that had been lent by Claude Emile Schuffenecker, another artist friend of Gauguin's. Seeing that there had been a faun in the collections of Schuffenecker and O'Conor, and knowing that Gauguin's sculpture found special favor with artists in his circle, the scholars concluded that it must have been one of the 30-odd early ceramics that a key source from the 1960s had posited were lost or had been destroyed.

The only visual clues to those ceramics apparently were sketched ideas in Gauguin's notebooks, including some of a faun's head. The traditional association of the faun with lust seemed to fit the iconography that Gauguin, by the mid-1880s, was beginning to develop regarding his animal nature and identification with the primitive. Technical analyses raised no alarms, and the museum concluded that "The Faun" was authentic, done in 1886 as Gauguin's first ceramic sculpture.

Sculpture is now part of Druick's responsibilities, but when the work was acquired it was through the department of European decorative arts, sculpture and ancient art, then headed by Ian Wardropper.

"It came with provenance completely believable," said Wardropper, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "Should we have checked with Scotland Yard whether the consignor was a descendant of O'Conor's? Maybe so, but we don't usually ask for that."

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