A £100m Leonardo or a 1978 fake?

November 30 2015

Image of A £100m Leonardo or a 1978 fake?

Picture: Sunday Times

In The Sunday Times yesterday the art critic and broadcaster Waldemar Janusczcak broke the extraordinary news that the convicted British forger Shaun Greenhalgh claims he made the 'Bella Principessa' drawing declared by some a work by Leonardo da Vinci (most notably Prof. Martin Kemp of Oxford University).

If true, Greenhalgh's work raises huge questions about not only the connoisseurship of those involved in declaring the drawing a Leonardo, but also the extensive array of scientific analysis behind the attribution. Extensive tests have declared that (for example) the vellum is the 'right' age, that the materials in the drawing are approriate to Leonardo's time period, and that the work was even cut from a specific 15th Century book in Warsaw. But if Greenhalgh is right, then all of that is a waste of time.

First, a recap. The 'Bella Principessa' drawing was first recorded when it was sold at Christie's on 30th January 1998 in New York, where it was described as 'German School, early 19th Century'. It made $21,850. No provenance was listed. It was bought by a dealer, who after a while sold it on (for roughly the same price) to a private collector, Peter Silverman, who thought it might be by Leonardo. After extensive research, a number of Leonardo scholars agreed, including Kemp and Carlo Pedretti (of whom regular AHN readers will know). A large number of scientific tests were done at the Lumiere laboratory in Paris by Pascal Cotte (of whom regular AHN readers will also know). A book was published containing all the evidence behind the attribution, including (in a misjudgement which later cast doubt on the whole proceeding) some entirely unconvincing analysis of a fingerprint, claimed to be Leonardo's. The drawing has been regularly displayed in museums (mainly in Italy) as a Leonardo. The press give it a valuation of '£100m'.

Shaun Greenhalgh has great form as a forger. He was jailed in 2007 for making (among other objects) the 'Amarna Princess' a fake ancient Egyptian sculpture bought by a British regional Museum for £439,767 - after it had been authenticated by experts from the British Museum. He (along with his parents) had sourced some suggested fake provenance from a legitimate sale catalogue of 1897. In other words, they were crafty and diligent.

Now, Greenhalgh (in a book available from Waldemar's company ZCZ Editions) says he made the 'Bella Principessa' in 1978 on an old English vellum document, and backed it with a piece of wood taken from a school desk. To make the wood look older, he put in some fake repairs in the form of butterfly joints. The model was apparently a girl called Sally, who worked the check-outs in the local Co-op supermarket. He says he sold it to an (unnamed) dealer, and it later ended up in the hands of Gianino Marchig (d.1983), who was an artist and a restorer. His widow Jeanne Marchig consigned it to Christie's. 

So should we believe Shaun Greenhalgh? On the one hand, Mr Greenhalgh's past credits, if we can call them that, are already stellar enough - he fooled some of the world's most important institutions. So why the need to make up another claim entirely, especially one which, if the drawing is indeed 15th Century, would presumably be easy to disprove scientifically? On the other hand, forgers do have (historically) a tendency to continue to weave webs of deception, for all sorts of reasons. On a previous episode of 'Fake or Fortune?' we investigated a work by the most famous forger of them all, Han van Meegeren, which he continued to deny forging even after he had admitted everything else. He just couldn't stop telling fibs.

In response to the Greenhalgh claim, Pascal Cotte has released some new (previously unpublished) results from his tests. These showed conclusively, he said, that radio-active decay levels in the pigments confirmed a date earlier than the 17th Century. In response, Greenhalgh claimed that he made his own pigments from organic materials of appropriate age, including 'iron-rich clay and charcoal from ancient trees.

So, what to make of all this? I've never seen the drawing in the flesh, but I can say it has never struck me as a work by Leonardo (and who am I to say, you ask). You can see a high-res image of it here. That said, until now it hasn't struck me either as modern fake. It's very competently drawn, whoever made it. The repairs on the back of the panel (which you can see here) do look a little superfluous, as if they have indeed been put there for show. I find the claim that the drawing was cut from a 15th Century book now in Poland (whilst diligently set out, here) to be, on balance, a little too implausible. And it's a persistent cause for caution that there is no documentation pointing to the drawing's existence before the late 20th Century (with not even a hint of a mention in any early litereature). If Leonardo had drawn such an engaging model, surely we would expect to have some references to it.

But at the moment I think the balance of evidence makes me doubt Mr Greenhalgh's story. Jeanne Marchig has said (in her lawsuit against Christie's, for selling 'a Leonardo' as a 19th Century work) that the picture belonged to her husband before she married him in 1955. I find it hard to believe that all the scientific tests carried out by Pascal Cotte are completely useless. Above all, I wonder if Mr Greenhalgh (as talented a forger as he is) would really have had the inclination as a teenager (he was born in 1961) to make a captivating drawing in 1979 using pigments of the correct age, on the off-chance that someone, some decades hence, would scientifically test them to see if the work was by Leonardo.

Maybe Mr Greenhalgh can produce more evidence to back up his claim. Maybe 'Sally' will turn up and be a dead ringer for the 'Bella Principessa'. Maybe there is more to be learnt of Mr Marchig's role in the operation, for he was a talented draughtsman as well as a restorer. But for the moment to answer to the question, 'is this drawing a £100m Leonardo or a 1978 fake?' is; probably neither.

Update - Prof. Kemp responds to the story here.

Update II - an artist writes:

The subtleties of draughtmanship in the nose, the upper eyelid and mouth of the so called 'Bella Principessa' show that it is a drawing done from life by a very considerable draughtsman.

William Holman Hunt's similar profile in 'Isabella and the pot of Basil' in the Walker Art Gallery springs to mind as an example of someone good enough.

If Sean Greenhalgh is really up to this standard of draughtmanship, as he appears top claim, then why don't we see samples of his portraits in the Royal Society of Portrait painters every year? He could by now, have earned a very good living as a portrait draughtsman.

Whoever drew the Principessa seems indeed to have done a lot of Greenhalgh style research; from the hairnet of Ambrogio da Predis's young woman in the Ambrosiano, to the identical plait in Giancristoforo Romano's beautiful marble bust of Beatrice D'Este, with some Leonardesque knotwork on the shoulder thrown in.

Maybe not by Leonardo, but certainly not by Greenhalgh.

Update III - another reader writes:

Two small points re Shaun Greenhalgh  - 

1) The Amarna Princess was said to have come from a sale in 1892, not 1897 (I know - pedantic)

2) Eric Hebborn said he re-made the Royal Academy's Leonardo Cartoon after it was destroyed by a leaky radiator (or similar) just before it was sold. Forgers just love muddying the waters!

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.