December 9, 2015

Notorious art forger claims ‘‘La Bella Principessa’’ as his own



Is La Bella Principessa a work by Leonardo da Vinci, an art forger, or neither? Image: New York Times/Pascal Cotte/Lumière Technology

Controversy has been compounded with more controversy in the story of a drawing thought by some to be a lost work by Leonardo da VinciLa Bella Principessa features an aristocratic woman in profile, and has been making headlines for nearly a decade, since the art collector Peter Silverman presented evidence that the drawing he bought in 2007 for $20,000 is a da Vinci masterpiece worth hundreds of millions.

Now, the notorious British art forger Shaun Greenhalgh, who served over four years in prison on charges related to forgeries of art spanning centuries of history, has come forward to claim the drawing as his own.

As Harry Mount reported for the Daily Mail, the supposed admission comes in a just-published memoir by Greenhalgh, A Forger’s Tale, in which he describes making the drawing in 1978, modeling the Principessa on a woman named Sally, with whom he worked in a grocery store at the time.

And, as Scott Reyburn explained in an article in the New York Times, the art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, who is part of the consortium that published the memoir, has backed the claim. “Mr. Januszczak says Mr. Greenhalgh was about 20 years old when he made La Principessa, while he was working at the supermarket in the late 1970s,” writes Reyburn. According to Januszczak, Greenhalgh drew the portrait on “an old land deed that had been written on vellum, and finding the ‘good’ side to be too ink-stained to use, turned it over and drew on the rough side instead, as Leonardo would never have done.”

Were it true, Greenhalgh’s claim would be another unbelievable twist in the drawing’s already complicated story. Silverman, the current owner, has denounced it, telling Reyburn: “It’s ludicrous and absurd…It’s shameless that an art historian should stoop to that level to promote his book.”

According to Reyburn, “Silverman even went so far as to say that he would pay Mr. Greenhalgh 10,000 pounds, about $15,000, if he could reproduce La Bella Principessa on vellum in front of a committee of experts. ‘And he goes back to jail where he belongs if he doesn’t,’ [Silverman] said.”

While the jury is still out on the provenance of the drawing (Martin Kemp of Oxford University was early to declare it a da Vinci, but independent art historian Kasia Pisarek has cited inconsistencies of material and composition in her case against it), previous reports would indicate that Greenhalgh’s claim might be another sort of fakery. According to Reyburn, in a lawsuit against Christie’s, Jeanne Marchig, wife of a previous owner of the PrincipessaGiannino Marchig, stated that the drawing had been “in her husband’s collection by 1955, long before Mr. Greenhalgh is supposed to have made it.”

And we thought the story of da Vinci’s The Battle of Anghiari was riveting…

Da Vinci commands some of the highest prices among the Old Masters, and it’s made for exciting—and risky—work for museums and collectors. Who knows what the next “revelation” about the Principessa will be?


Kait Howard is a publicist at Melville House.