British family of forgers fooled art world with fake of Gauguin 'Faun' sculpture

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A sculpture thought to be the work of Paul Gauguin, which the Art Institute of Chicago bought a decade ago hailing it as one of its most important acquisitions, has turned out to be a fake made by a British family who were convicted of forgery last month.

The piece, a half-man, half-goat ceramic figure entitled The Faun and crafted in the style of the 19th-century French artist, had been hailed as a major rediscovery by the museum when it was bought. But the sculpture has been revealed to be among scores of forgeries produced by the prolific Greenhalgh family from Greater Manchester, according to The Art Newspaper.

Last month, a judge sentenced Shaun Greenhalgh, 47, to four years and eight months in prison, while his mother, Olive, 82, received a suspended term of 12 months. Her husband, George, 84, is still awaiting sentencing. Shaun Greenhalgh created the fakes, while his parents handled most of the sales. All three pleaded guilty earlier this year to defrauding art institutions and buyers over the past 17 years.

Erin Hogan, the director of public affairs, said the Institute was naturally disappointed by the turn of events.

"We are very disappointed by this but it was a very clever and creative job," she said.

Ms Hogan added that the Institute was in talks with Sotheby's and the dealer about possible compensation for the discredited piece. "Everyone who bought and sold [the work] did so in good faith," she said.

Yesterday, Scotland Yard confirmed that The Faun was sold by Sotheby's under an account for Mrs Roscoe, which is Olive Greenhalgh's maiden name. Investigators had already announced last month that a forged Gauguin ceramic of The Faun had been sold by the Greenhalgh family but that its "current whereabouts are unknown".

On 30 November 1994, Sotheby's sold the piece to private dealers in London for 18,000, and three years later the Institute's chief curator, Douglas Druick, spotted it at the dealers. Although the Institute already had an impressive group of Gauguin paintings and works on paper, it had no sculptures and it was bought for around $125,000.

In 2001, the Institute's sculpture curator, Ian Wardropper, wrote that it was one of the most important acquisitions of the past 20 years and described The Faun's features, as "bound up with the artist's self-image as a 'savage'". In the same year, it was displayed in Chicago's definitive Van Gogh and Gauguin exhibition, which later went on to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Mr Druick dated the work to winter 1886, which made it Gauguin's "first ceramic". In his description, he noted the "potentially phallic tail, but parted legs reveal the absence of the often flaunted sign of a faun's virility, resulting in an aura of impotence. Gauguin evidently linked this iconography to his failing relationship with [his wife] Mette".

In 2005, it was accepted by the leading specialist in Gauguin ceramics, Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark, from Copenhagen, who described it as "among Gauguin's most satirical" works.

The sculpture appeared to be based on a tiny drawing of a faun sculpture in a sketchbook which the artist used in Martinique in 1887. Having been permanently displayed in a gallery of Post-Impressionist art in Chicago, it was taken off show in October.