Is forged art deserving of attention? The collectors and museums across the world who pay millions for celebrated Dalí, Picasso or Matisse works, only to find they're fakes would probably say no. But there's certainly a grudging - and growing - acceptance that the shadowy artists who painstakingly recreate masterpieces to slip mischievously into the international art market are, well, masters of a kind themselves.
The proof of this is a fascinating new exhibition, open for two weeks at London's Victoria & Albert Museum. The Metropolitan Police art and antiques unit is showing off some of the tactics it uses to detect forged art and uncover the people who create it. There have been exhibitions of this sort before. But crucially, the pieces this time include the intriguing body of work from the most famous forger of recent times, Shaun Greenhalgh. You can admire a statuette of the Egyptian Amarna Princess, initially thought to be 3,300 years old and bought by Bolton Museum in 2003 for £440,000 (Dh2.6 million). It was, they said, "a coup".
It was a coup all right - for Greenhalgh. He'd knocked it together in his garden shed over just three weeks in 1999, buying the tools from a local DIY warehouse and ageing the materials by staining them with old tea bags. Greenhalgh is the latest in a long line of master forgers. Han van Meegeren faked the work of Johannes Vermeer so successfully that his "lost" masterpiece, The Disciples at Emmaus, was sold for $6m (Dh22m) in 1937. Elmyr de Hory was a Hungarian painter who was so adept with his copies of Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse and Picasso that he spent most of his career on the run from Interpol and the FBI. But Greenhalgh is unique. Not only was he operating in a world where computer checks and dating technology have made forgery a dying art, but he wasn't just a sculptor. Somehow, his LS Lowry paintings were also taken for the real thing too - leading the V&A to say in this exhibition that Greenhalgh was the "most diverse art forger in history".
And until he made a fatal mistake, Greenhalgh's research was impeccable and the "provenances" (each artwork has a paper-trail, much like a car's service history) were also faked in a way that made fools of the art world. Indeed, many have suggested that showing up a world that he was not a part of was Greenhalgh's intention all the while, rather than money. After all, this wasn't an international operation based in a secret lab, but the work of a family living in what most would describe as poverty in Bolton, Greater Manchester - despite making nearly £500,000 from their fakes.
Greenhalgh was eventually caught trying to sell three Assyrian reliefs with spelling mistakes to the British Museum. He was jailed for four years and remains incarcerated. But despite the clear crime committed, this exhibition does provoke the interesting question: is his work still art? Bolton Museum thinks so. It has asked to display the Amarna Princess, which was seized by police, despite the scandal it caused.
There's even the suggestion that Greenhalgh will be back in his shed creating copies when he's released from jail - this time legally. And why not? Many rich folk wouldn't mind a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in their gardens - and would polite friends really question its provenance as they gazed at its beauty? Of course not, and that's where Greenhalgh's career as a bona-fide artist of reproduction work could begin.
The exhibition also reveals that the Greater Manchester Police have recently cracked another high-profile forging scam: Tracey Emin's paintings - or rather, paintings purported to be by Tracey Emin - were offered for sale on the art market in the last year. Two men have been arrested and bailed until next month on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and money-laundering. Of course, the joke might be that anyone can "create" an Unmade Bed - for which she was famously nominated for the Turner Prize in 1998. But, of course, "anybody" did not: Emin did, and it sold for £150,000.
Last year the National Gallery presented Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries, the director Nicholas Penny admitting that he would consider buying forgeries for the gallery in the future. "The National Gallery is a place where we show off masterpieces, and also study the history of art in all its complexity," he said. There was the qualification that "of course, we would only be interested in really interesting forgeries", but the subtext was there: forgery is art, just a different kind of art and produced for different, illegitimate ends. Although if we had been tricked out of hundreds of thousands of pounds, we doubt that we'd view the matter with quite such equanimity-