Monday, October 22, 2007

Bolton and the "Amarna Princess"

Last week's announcement that a couple had pleaded guilty to selling a forged Egyptian alabaster statue to the Bolton Museum raises some interesting issues (Paul Stokes, "Couple sold fake Egyptian statue for £400,000", Daily Telegraph, October 20, 2007).

The sculpture was purchased back in 2003 for £440,000 with support from the National Arts Collection Fund [£75,000], the National Heritage Memorial Fund [£360,767] and the Friends of Bolton Museum and Art Gallery (story).

It came with the following history:

The sculpture was bought and brought to Bolton by the owner's great grandfather in 1892 at a sale of the contents of Silverton Park in Devon, the home of the 4th Earl of Egremont.

When the police started their enquiries last year it was noted:
It was bought by the museum from a local family in Bolton, Greater Manchester, who wanted to remain anonymous.

The NACF website also adds this information:

"Vendor: Through Christie, Manson and Woods Ltd".

One of Bolton's councillors, Laurie Williamson, was quoted as saying (probably now with much regret):

"This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to secure an important Egyptian treasure."

So we have the following elements:
a. a purchase too good to be true.
b. a purchase from an anonymous collection.
c. a distinguished pedigree.
d. the link with a well-known auction-house.

And are we surprised at the outcome?

But, more importantly, what checks were made? Who made them? And who double-checked in the two Funds?

2 comments:

David Gill said...

For a report in the Bolton press:
Edward Chadwick, "Couple plead guilty to passing off fake artwork", The Bolton News, October 19, 2007, http://www.theboltonnews.co.uk/display.var.1774397.0.couple_plead_guilty_to_passing_off_fake_artwork.php

Jonathan Tokeley said...

FROM JONATHAN TOKELEY, author of RESCUING THE PAST: THE CULTURAL HERITAGE CRUSADE

I apologise for disturbing the Liberal pieties here, but a little common-sense is in order.

Firstly, there is not a single European dealer---and I have checked most of them---who would have bought the Bolton Amarna Princess---that is, risked his own money on it. It was NOT a good fake, as fakes go. As a restorer of Egyptian antiquities, I could have 'knocked it up' in my spare time, AND avoided the give-away iconographic mistakes. I also worked for ten years in Egypt as a trader, where I saw ten fakes for every genuine piece, and I would have laughed in the face of anybody who had tried to sell this one to me---however lachrymose and convincing his story.

As I say, there are obvious mistakes in the piece, which should have been immediately spotted---and which WERE spotted by almost everybody in the trade---and by senior European academics---hence their outrage tempered by amusement that it should ever have been fobbed off on the Bolton Museum.

But the trade was not consulted, and the only reason the forgery came to light was because the same Bolton 'cottage-industry' were discovered to have been distributing their eclectic products in various other directions.

Their arrest, and the shock horror revelation that the Amarna Princess was a fake, therefore owes nothing to the British Egyptologists, and everything to Dick Ellis's tenacious memory. The credit is his.

But for those embarrassed now to claim that "there are no scientific tests for stone", and that therefore by implication it was nobody's mistake, is disingenuous.

So, whose mistake was it, this absurd purchase, at the taxpayuer's expense? Ultimately, the British Museum. They were responsible for 'authenticating' the Bolton Princess, that is, declaring it genuine and thus a fit subject for public funds. The incompetence was theirs, and in using this word I am merely quoting John Harris, Emeritus Professor of Egyptology, the University of Copenhagen, who it was trained most of what he calls the "British Museum crowd", and who bemoans their lack of 'object-mindedness', which is roughly synonymous with 'connoisseurship', but not quite the same.

Students who study Egyptology in this country do not, as they do in Europe, and as an integral part of their training, handle objects with the object of learning their techniques of manufacture, the processes of ageing, of patination, of decay, and thereby getting 'a feel' for genuine antiquities, as opposed to mere copies. These are all intangibles, but it is only thus Egyptologists will ever develop what we call 'the eye', by which they can come to feel that an object is "wrong", with the same degree of surety that you, as a layman, can understand that the silver glimpse you catch sight of from the corner of your eye was a Volvo, and not a Porsche. It would take you ten thousand words, as a layman, to try and justify your decision, but the you are sure you are right (and you almost certainly are).

It is exactly the same with forgeries. Those of us who have worked with antiquities over the years, and committed our funds to them, cannot afford to make such elementary mistakes as the British museum made over the Bolton Princess. It is said that every collector buys a fake in every class, during his time. But he only buys one, because his wallet pays the penalty for his mistake. He never makes that mistake again.

And if he, the collector or trader, is uncertain, he can ask his restorer, who sees things as it were from the inside, with an eye to techniques, and material, and the chemistry of decay, who can usually put him right.

But academics can go through their careers making such mistakes, and never pay any price, never even realize they've been making the mistakes.

So for them to claim that the modern forgeries are better, and that's "it's all spinning out of control" is merely indicative of their own dubeity. The forgers are NOT getting any better; their products are merely merely benefitting from better documentation and better parallels. And to meet their challenge---a challenge which they've been making for rather a long time, please note---only requires that the people concerned---the people gifted the effective control of the public's purse---learn to do their job, or hand it over to someone else who can do it.

For this is not their only recent large mistake. Readers may care to consult the first chapter of my book (see www.jonathantokeley.com and follow the links to 'sample chapter' of RESCUING THE PAST)

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