AN elderly couple and their son who tricked Bolton Council into parting with £440,000 for a fake statue conned the art world with a string of elaborate schemes for nearly two decades.

Shaun Greenhalgh was a talented artist and sculptor who used his skills to create copies of rare and sought-after masterpieces at the family's home in The Crescent, Bromley Cross.

His wheelchair-bound father, George, aged 84, acted as a convincing salesman and provided carefully researched stories about the origins of every fake they passed off as real.

Olive Greenhalgh, aged 83, made phone calls to unwitting buyers to arrange meetings.

The artworks included a copy of the 3,300-year-old Amarna Princess statue bought by Bolton Council in 2003 after being convinced by George Greenhalgh that it was a family heirloom.

Instead, it was the family's most elaborate and audacious con - and even fooled Egyptology experts at the British Museum.

It was revealed at Bolton Crown Court yesterday that Shaun Greenhalgh, aged 47 - a self-taught artist - had carved it himself in a garden shed in just three weeks.

The deceit was exposed only when other stone carvings, purported to date from 900BC, were spotted to be modern copies.

The court heard about 44 other items which the family sold or attempted to sell between 1989 and 2006 - among them copies of work by LS Lowry, Paul Gaugin and Bolton-born painter Thomas Moran.

Detectives say dozens of fakes may still be in circulation.

Shaun Greenhalgh was jailed for four years and eight months after admitting defrauding art institutions between 1989 and 2006 and conspiracy to conceal and transfer £410,392.

His mother was given a 12-month suspended sentence and her husband will be sentenced at a later date pending medical reports.

But Judge William Morris made it clear the pensioner was facing a jail term.

Both admitted the same charges as their son.

The judge told Shaun Greenhalgh: "This was an ambitious conspiracy of long duration based on your undoubted talent and based on the sophistication of the deceptions underpinning the sales and attempted sales.

"I speak of your talent but not in admiration. Your talent was misapplied to the ends of dishonest gain."

Judge Morris said the fraud had cheated private collectors and galleries out of £850,000.

Bolton Museum was approached by George Greenhalgh in 2002. He asked staff if they would like to view the 20-inch statue which he said had been passed down from his great-grandfather.

He told them he knew little of Egyptian antiquities and said the item had been valued at £500 before allowing the member of staff to take it away for examination.

His claims were backed up by a catalogue from the sale of a house and its contents in 1892.

Shaun Greenhalgh used details in the catalogue to manufacture a copy of the statue, said Peter Cadwallader, prosecuting.

The figure was taken to Christie's and the British Museum where experts said it was genuine after comparing it to a similar item at the Louvre in Paris.

After Bolton Council paid £439,767 to the family, the purchase was hailed as a coup as the statue was believed to be worth £1 million.

It was said to represent one of the daughters of Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, the mother of Tutankhamun.

It remained on show until February, 2006.

Curators at the British Museum called police when they became suspicious about three pieces of stone with raised "reliefs" which were offered to them by George Greenhalgh in October, 2005.

Although they were initially believed to be genuine and worth as much as £250,000, experts at the museum and Bonham's auctioneers realised they were fakes and phoned police.

In February, 2006, Bolton Museum was contacted by the Metropolitan Police's arts and antiques unit which raised doubts about the Amarna Princess.

The purchase was funded by grants as well as a donation of £4,000 from the Friends of Bolton Museum.

Judge Morris said there could be no criticism of anybody within the council or museum for falling for the con.

Andrew Nuttall, defending Shaun Greenhalgh, said: "As an artist, Shaun Greenhalgh does not have a style of his own. What he can do is copy.

"He was completely self-taught. In some respects that may make him unique."

Brian McKenna, defending Mrs Greenhalgh, said she had made phonecalls on behalf of her son because he was shy and did not like to use the telephone.

"In terms of involvement in this conspiracy, she was on the periphery, but it would be wrong of me to suggest that she did not know what was going on," he said.

Outside court, Stephanie Crossley, assistant director of adult services at Bolton council, said the incident had been "regrettable but the council carefully followed established practice.

She added: "We welcome the judge's comments. He said that we were victims of the most clever deception'.

"The museum did not rely on its own judgment. He said that he could see no criticism of Bolton Museum in what it had done and no criticism of any individual."

No council money had been contributed towards the sale, she added.

Two Halifax accounts in the name of Shaun Greenhalgh, one containing £55,173 and the other £303,646, have been frozen and a confiscation hearing will be held at Bolton Crown Court on January 25 next year.