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section heading icon     antiquities and ethnographica

This page considers forgery and fraud relating to antiquities and ethnographica.

It covers -

section marker     introduction

Forgery has been intimately associated with the discovery, marketing and critical reception of antiquities since at least the Han dynasty in China and late Republican Rome.

The provenance of works is often unclear, demand for works may be high but (without the forger's help) not readily satisfied, markets may be driven by notions of connoisseurship (often antithetical to "grubbing after facts" and forensic analysis) or cultural nationalism and assessments of authenticity reflect changing conventions in collecting, modes of art criticism and prevailing consumer tastes.

Forgery of ceramics, sculptures, paintings, textiles and other artifacts has accordingly encompassed -

  • production of a new work that is then passed off as being of a particular period
  • piecing together of authentic fragments to simulate an original
  • 'improvement' of existing works.

Recent high profile exposures include the Louvre's Tiara of Saitapharnes (supposedly 3rd Century BC Scythian but probably Russian from the turn of last century), the Getty Kouros, Etruscan terracottas in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Vinland Map at Yale.

Earlier excitements include Curzio Inghirami's 'discovery' in 1634 of Etruscan manuscripts - alas written on linen rag-paper with contemporary watermarks - with supposed prophecies by the augur Prospero of Fiesole regarding the birth of Christ. It is explored in The Scarith of Scornello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2004) by Ingrid Rowland. The texts - which alas disappeared in 1985 - featured the usual hocus pocus such as

The vulture hath raised its voice from the face of the Locust. The Locust shall devour Lions. The stones shall sweat in horror

and have been dismissed as "cut-rate Nostradamus".

Prolific forger and manuscript dealer Constantine Simonides (1820-1867?) has been claimed as author of the 'Artemidorus Papyrus' - discussed in Luciano Canfora's The True History of the So-Called Artimidorus Papyrus (Bari: Edizioni di Pagina 2008). Simonides earlier gained notoriety through a false claim to have forged the Codex Sinaiticus (acquired by the British Museum in 1933 for £100,000). His known scams included forgery of the Symais (first published 1849) and a 'St Matthew, James & Jude' papyrus (1861).

Oscar Muscarella's The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures (Groningen: Styx 2000) suggests that contemporary forgery - or merely improper attribution - of archaeological objects is common. He notes around 40% of archaeological objects tested by the Oxford Thermoluminescence Laboratory prove to be fakes.

In 2005 an art fraud conference organised by the UK Fraud Advisory Panel was told by Paul Craddock of the British Museum that most antiquities on sale in Britain are either stolen or fake.

The amount of legitimate material on the market is very, very small. Most antiquities on the market nowadays are either stolen or forgeries.

In 2000 the London Metropolitan Police alone seized £22m of stolen or faked antiquities. It is claimed that half the antiquities brought for sale at Sotheby's in a year are fake and that around 25,000 forged antiquities enter the market each year. In 2006 the Met claimed that forged antiquities from Iraq and Afghanistan were being sold on internet auction sites and UK market stalls for up to £3,000 each UK to fund terrorism.

Supposedly around 80% of 'ancient' terracottas smuggled from Mali since the 1980s have been fakes.

As with the trade in old master paintings, drawings, prints and other objects the 'discovery' and distribution of forged antiquities is an integral part of the archaeological economy.

Some estimates suggest that around 60% of antiquities from China are of contemporary manufacture. William Alford's To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilisation (Stanford: Stanford Uni Press 1995), Alexander Stille's The Future of the Past (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux 2000) and Joan Stanley-Baker's Old Masters Repainted: A Detailed Investigation Into the Authenticity of Paintings Attributed to Wu Zhen, 1280-1354 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Uni Press 1992) illustrate arguments in some cultures that emulation is as important as originality.

One point of reference is the estimate in Who Owns The Past? Cultural Policy, Cultural Property & the Law (New Brunswick: Rutgers Uni Press 2005) edited by Kate Fitz Gibbon that global trade in antiquities is around US$100 million to US$200 million per year. Archaeological advocacy organisation SAFE: Saving Antiquities For Everyone estimates the global antiquities trade at US$4 billion per year.

section marker     studies

An introduction to the manufacture and enthronement of antiquities is provided by Thomas Hoving's breezy False Impressions – The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes (New York: Simon & Schuster 1996) and King of the Confessors (New York: Simon & Schuster 1981) and Adolf Rieth's Archaeological Fakes (New York: Praeger 1967). There is a more scholarly treatment in Discovery & Deceit: archaeology & the forger's craft (Kansas: Nelson-Atkins Museum 1996) by Robert Cohon.

Hoving's activities as a curator/entrepreneur are criticised in John McPhee's acute A Roomful of Hovings (New York: Noonday Press 1985) and Muscarella's The Lie Became Great. Karl Meyer's The Plundered Past and Frank Arnau's The Art of The Faker 3,000 Years of Deception (Boston: Little Brown 1959) are dated but still of value, as is Why Fakes Matter: Essays on problems of authenticity (London: British Museum Press 1992) edited by Mark Jones.

For particular genres see Bernard Ashmole's more restrained Forgeries of Ancient Sculpture in Marble: Creation & Detection (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1961), supplemented by Unmasking the Forger: The Dossena Deception (London: Collins 1987) by David Sox and An Inquiry into the Forgery of the Etruscan Terracotta Warriors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: 1961) by Dietrich von Bothmer & Joseph Nobele. Other studies include 'Replicas, Fakes, and Art: The Twentieth Century Stone Age and Its Effects on Archaeology' by John Whittaker & Michael Stafford in 64(2) American Antiquity (1999) 203-214 and Whittaker's American Flintknappers: Stone Age Art in the Age of Computers (Austin: Uni of Texas Press 2004).

An introduction to dodgy numismatics is provided by Classical Deception: Counterfeits, Forgeries and Reproductions of Ancient Coins (New York: Kraus 2001) by Wayne Sayles.

For Pre-Columbian forgery see in particular Falsifications and Misreconstructions of pre-Columbian art: a conference at Dumbarton Oaks, October 14th & 15th, 1978 (Cambridge: Dumbarton Oaks/Harvard Uni Press 1982).

Paul Bator's The International Trade in Art (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 1983) considers ethics, law and practice regarding the international trade in antiquities. There is a revisionist view in 'Age as Artefact: On Archaeological Authenticity' by Cornelius Holtorf & Tim Schadla-Hall in 2(2) European Journal of Archaeology (1999) 229-247.

section marker     incidents

Exposures and controversies include -

  • forged terracotta statues of Etruscan warriors acquired by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1915 and 1921. In 1960 it was recognised that the glaze contained manganese. Alfredo Fioravanti, one of the forgers, was still alive and demonstrated his involvement by producing the thumb that was missing from one figure
  • the Louvre claimed the headband of Saitaphernes as a masterpiece of Scythian metalwork but subsequently withdrew the item from exhibition after independent scholars suggested that dated from a Russian workshop in the late Art Nouveau period
  • versatile Italian sculptor Alceo Dossena (1878-1937) gained attention after blowing the whistle on dealers who were marketing his carvings as work from antiquity or the early Renaissance. He is now considered to be responsible for the sculptured tomb previously attributed to Mino da Fiesole
  • the 'Minoan' statuette known as the Fitzwilliam Goddess, acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 1926 and exposed in 1990s, as discussed by Kevin Butcher & David Gill's 1993 'The Director, the Dealer, the Goddess, and Her Champions: The Acquisition of the Fitzwilliam Goddess' in 97(3) American Journal of Archaeology (1993) 383-401.
  • antiquities dealer Moses Shapira (1830-1884) peddled a hoard of 'Moabite' clay figurines and vessels that featured inscriptions copied from the Mesha Stele, with the Berlin Museum paying 22,000 thalers for 1,700 artefacts in 1873 before the fraud was exposed by French scholar Charles Clermont-Ganneau. Unabashed, Shapira marketed the 'Shapira Strips', supposedly early and heterodox parchments, in 1883 before exposure by Clermont-Ganneau and David Ginsburg
  • the so-called Risley Park Lanx, a supposedly authentic roman silver tray acquired by the British Museum for around £100,000 in 1991 but apparently concocted by Shaun Greenhalgh in the 1980s on the basis of a 1736 description by antiquarian William Stukeley. Debate is highlighted in 'The Risley Park lanx 'rediscovered'' by Catherine Johns & Kenneth Painter in 2(6) Minerva (1991) 6-13.
  • a classical Greek Kouros expensively acquired by the Getty Museum in the US and now considered by some to be a contemporary work. Its authenticity is explored in The Getty Kouros Colloquium: Athens, 25-27 May 1992 (Malibu: J Paul Getty Museum 1993) edited by Angeliki Kokkou and 'Saga of Getty Kouros' by Robert Bianchi in Archaeology (May 1994) 22-25
  • claims that Brigido Lara created over 3,500 'Pre-Columbian' antiquities
  • the Metropolitan Museum of Art faces controversy after acquisition in 1997 of a collection of Chinese paintings, notably Riverbank - claimed by some to have been created by contemporary masters Chang Ta-Chien or Zhang Daqian rather than 1,100 years ago and discussed in Issues of Authenticity in Chinese Painting (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art 1999) edited by Judith Smith & Wen Fong
  • suggestions by Muscarella that the Met's Cycladic Harp Player is a forgery
  • announcement by the Freer Gallery of Art that it had reclassified works including a Northern Qi dynasty (550–577) stele, a gilt image of a standing Buddha and ivory statue of Guanyin in the guise of Buddha with a sacred jewel (re-dated to the Ming to Qing dynasty after assessment that an inscription of 1025 was spurious)
  • claims that a statuette of pharoah Sesostris III acquired by French industrialist Francois Arnault in 1998 was a contemporary forgery, as the ancient Egyptians did not use diamond drills
  • US academic John Moffitt has suggested in The Lady of Elche (Miami: University Presses of Florida 1995) that Spain's Lady of Elche sculpture dates from 1896 rather than 500 BC
  • acknowledgement in January 2005 that the British Museum's 'Aztec' crystal skull was a fake rather than a Pre-Columbian artefact, probably created for 19th-century dealer Eugene Boban before being sold to Tiffany's in 1881 for US$950 and acquired by the BM in 1897. That is presumably a disappointment for enthusiasts who have claimed it is of extraterrestrial origin. France's Musée Quai Branly announced in 2008 that its ' Pre-Columbian' skull was probably made in Idar-Oberstein, Germany, and sold by Boban in 1875.
  • the 'Amarna Princess' sculpture, supposedly a representation of the half-sister of King Tutankhamun (dating from Egypt of the 2nd century BC) but apparently concocted by members of the Greenhalgh family in 2003 and sold to the Bolton Museum for £440,000. The Greenhalghs were responsible for other forgeries and sales, including a 'Gauguin' Faun ceramic eventually acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago, and sculptures or paintings attributed to Lowry, Hepworth, Moore, Brancusi and Dix
  • claims in 2005 that the Sky Disc of Nebra, a supposedly 3,600-year-old astrological disk that is one of Germany's most acclaimed archaeological finds, is a modern forgery. The disc was allegedly uncovered in 1999 by two amateur metal detectors at a prehistoric hill fort near the town of Nebra. The discoverers were convicted of handling stolen goods, later arguing that the disk is a fake and that they thus should not have been convicted.
  • suggestions by Kenneth Lapatin in Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2002) that the Minoan snake goddess statuette excavated by Arthur Evans at Knossos was a modern fake
  • claims that linguist Bogdan Petriceicu-Hasdeu (1836-1907) was responsible for the so-called 'Dacian' or 'Sinaia' lead plates, gibberish texts manufactured to substantiate Romanian cultural nationalism in the 1880s. Similar motivation appears to have underpinned Tohoku Paleolithic Institute archaeologist Fujimura Shinichi's fraud, which came to an embarrassing end when the Mainichi Shimbun photographed him salting a dig
  • James Edward Little (1876-1953) fooled museum directors and art collectors across the world into buying his forged or stolen Polynesian artefacts and associated documentation, discussed in Henry Skinner's Comparatively Speaking: studies in Pacific material culture, 1921-1972 (Dunedin: Uni of Otago Press 1974)
  • suggestions that the wax Flora sculpture in Berlin's Bode Museum was created in 1846 by Richard Lucas (1800-1883) rather than by Leonardo da Vinci or associates.

New Zealand scholar Robin Watt commented that

I might see a photograph of a piece up for auction in one of the bigger auction houses - when I've pointed out that it might be a Little, and therefore needs a bit more investigating, I've either been ignored or told to sod off!

A third of the Coptic sculptures at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (the second largest collection of late Egyptian sculpture in North America) are now considered to be modern fakes. The Art Newspaper reported in 2008 that ten of the Museum's 30 sculptures (mainly acquired in the 1960s and 1970s) are deemed to be complete fakes, with over half the remainder having been extensively recarved and repainted in modern times.

section marker     other

The 'Vinland Map', a parchment depiction of the world (with details of Greenland and the east coast of North America), has been acclaimed as an artefact from before the time of Columbus - possibly indicating Norse exploration of what is now Canada. The map, now held by Yale University, appears to be related to the 'Tartar Relation' manuscript acquired by the British Museum.

Critics have argued that the map and the Relation are forgeries, with for example implausible texts, pigment that does not withstand forensic examination (eg contains too much titanium and must therefore be modern) and wormholes that had been made with red-hot knitting needles rather than than the nasties that eat early manuscripts. The great George Painter noted in 1965 that the wormholes - although not necessarily the images on the map - might be genuine, as the tiny tooth-marks left by the worms round the matching holes are apparent using a microscope. Chemical testing of the map pigment has been contentious.

Controversy about the Vinland Map features in The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1995) by R.A. Skelton, Thomas Marston & George Painter, the 1998 Vinland Reread review by Paul Saenger and the revisionist account Maps, Myths, & Men: The Story of the Vinland Map (Stanford: Stanford Uni Press 2004) by Kirsten Seaver.

Scientific forgeries include the Piltdown Man (aka Eoanthropus dawsoni) allegedly involving noosphere guru Teilhard de Chardin, for which see Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1990) by Frank Spencer and Joseph Weiner's The Piltdown Forgery (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1955).

Joseph Sidney Weiner (1915-1982), Kenneth Oakley and Wilfrid Le Gros Clark announced in 1953 that the anomalous remains discovered in 1912 by palaeontologist Charles Dawson (1864–1916) were not authentic. Uncovery of the fraud reflected traditional mechanisms of discovery, with initial questioning leading to a cascade of questions and testions. Weiner initially demonstrated how the Piltdown molar teeth might have been filed and all the material artificially stained. Oakley then confirmed that the Piltdown materials in the British Museum had indeed been artificially abraded and stained. On repeating the fluorine test, previously restricted to one part of the find and supposedly 'confirming' the authenticity of all the material, Oakley recognised that the skull, teeth (one from a hippopotamus, one from a chimpanzee) and jaw were of different dates (the jaw was that of a modern orang-utan). That recognition triggered a comprehensive range of further tests, including X-ray crystallography. The identity of the forger/s remains unclear. It's difficult not to recall Peter Medawar's 1950 dismissal of de Chardin as an author who "can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself".

More recently renowned Japanese archaeologist Fujimura Shinichi was caught on video salting stone tools at the Kamitakamori dig in Miyagi Prefecture.

A perspective is provided by Shelly Errington's The Death of Authentic Primitive Art & Other Tales of Progress (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1998) questioning some aspects of authenticity and primitivism.




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