Last Night's TV: The Artful Codgers Channel 4<br />Flipping Out: Israel's Drug Generation, BBC4

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

From the inaccurately punning title on, The Artful Codgers played the story of the Greenhalgh family of Bolton for laughs: tee-hee, look at the uneducated working-class types putting one over on the snooty, silly art market. But by the end, the story was starting to look a lot less funny than the programme wanted to let on.

You'll remember the Greenhalghes: George and Olive and their son, Sean, who were convicted last year of making at least £850,000 from selling forged works of art. The stuff they sold covered an astonishing range – Assyrian reliefs, Egyptian statuary, a heavily decorated Roman plate, paintings by Lowry, modern sculptures – and the police expected to find a complicated operation involving several forgers. After all, most forgers specialise: they paint or they carve. Instead, they found that Sean had knocked it all up by himself in the garden shed, having done the necessary research in the local public library. George, 84, did most of the selling, and was evidently a charming and accomplished liar. He also span some impressive stories about his war record, and had the medals to back them up, but he had actually spent most of the Second World War in prison for desertion.

The high point of their success was the sale of the "Amarna Princess" to the Bolton Museum for more than £400,000. This was purportedly an Egyptian figurine depicting one of Tutankhamun's sisters – damaged, but still a graceful object. George span a Tess of the d'Urbervilles yarn about a well-off family fallen on hard times, and all this art having been inherited. George had an auction catalogue by way of provenance (Olive had bought that second-hand). He told the museum that a dealer had valued it at £500, but if they didn't want to pay that he would use it as a garden ornament. The psychology behind this approach was simple but effective, his apparent ignorance and indifference apparently working as guarantees of authenticity. Bolton passed the statue on to the British Museum for appraisal. The curator who did the appraising was interviewed here, explaining somewhat gracelessly that he had worked on the assumption the statue had a "cast-iron" provenance, and it wasn't his job to check. The statue was passed as genuine, the National Heritage Fund stumped up most of the cash, and everybody was delighted. Some cringe-making archive footage showed a Bolton curator crowing to news cameras over the acquisition of this "masterpiece".

This was the only place where the experts were made to look downright silly; in fact, experts rumbled the Greenhalghes several times, but the police never got round to doing anything. The whole affair showed that the art world isn't quite as cosy as you might think. If people had been talking to one another, the Greenhalghes could never have carried on. The only outright entertainment came with the account of the Greenhalghes's downfall, over their Assyrian reliefs. These were swallowed by the British Museum again, but spotted by Richard Falkiner of Bonhams, a very jolly, slightly pompous man who announced gleefully that "I pride myself, I hope with justification, of knowing a bit about these reliefs". The style and the stone were not right, he said, and having been on his computer – "I call it my magic lantern, I believe they call it computers" – he found out where the Greenhalghes lived, and arrived at the somewhat snobbish but perfectly correct conclusion that people who lived round there don't own Assyrian reliefs.

After this, the story got sadder. The Greenhalghes lived in something not far above squalor: 47-year-old Sean slept in a room with his mother and another elderly relative and rarely went out. In recordings of police interviews, the family seethed with resentment – Sean at an art world he had barely encountered, Olive at dealers who were, she said, making a tidy profit on their handiwork (a nice piece of criminal logic). The most sensible remark came from Waldemar Januszczak, not normally a source of sense, saying that we should be applauding Sean for the quality of his work. And the real culprits here, surely, are an education system that misses a talent such as his, and an economic system that doesn't find him gainful employment.

Flipping Out: Israel's Drug Generation was a drifting, melancholy film about a whole world I'd never heard of: the Israeli diaspora in India. Every year, hordes of young Israelis, discharged after their three years' compulsory military service, take their demob money and head for the subcontinent to get out of their heads. Quite a few have mental breakdowns, brought on by loneliness, bad trips and, the director, Yoav Shamir, wanted us to think, guilt over their experiences in the occupied territories (he found one ex-soldier prepared to endorse that view, another who seemed puzzled). Shamir followed Hilik Magnus, a former secret-service agent, who has spent his life searching for and retrieving the damaged. The most arresting episode happened in sound only, out of reach of the cameras, as Magnus tried to persuade one young man, apparently convinced he was some kind of messiah, to accompany him home. "Look," the messiah told him, "with all due respect, I'm the most important person for humanity just now." But isn't that what most of us think when we're young?

Comments