Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Intellectual Consequences of Collecting Coptic Art

The Art Newspaper (July 1, 2008) has carried a story by Martin Bailey that "A third of the Coptic sculptures at the Brooklyn Museum of Art are modern fakes". The identifications had been made by Dr Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

And the problem does not stop at Brooklyn:
Brooklyn curator Dr Edna Russmann, who is concluding a study of the works, warns that other museums which acquired Coptic sculptures in the past 50 years are likely to face similar problems.
Apparently the pieces were acquired in the 1960s and 1970s due to desire by museums to augment their collections.
The fakes were mainly bought in the 1960s and 70s, and can be traced back to major antiquities dealers in New York and in Switzerland, to where they were shipped from Egypt. Dr Russmann believes that the dismissal of these works will encourage scholars to “re-evaluate Coptic art”.

What is striking about the fakes is that they place a greater emphasis on Christian iconography than the authentic works. This reflects market demand for such imagery in Europe and North America.
The report stresses the importance of archaeological context for finds, a point that has been made repeatedly in work presented by Gill and Chippindale.

How do we know if it is genuine? Frequently because of its find-spot. The report notes:
The number of surviving authentic sculptures is probably around 1,000. Examples from early excavations (such as those at the British Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which has the largest US collection) are authentic. Later finds need to be treated with caution.
Vikan identifies the production centre for these modern creations as well as other museums affected by his findings.
Dr Vikan explained that the fakes appeared to have originated from the village of Sheikh ‘Ibada (ancient Antinoöpolis), south of Cairo. He believes that “hundreds” were later acquired by museums in North America (including Princeton University Art Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC) and Europe, particularly in Germany (including Berlin State Museums and the Icon Museum in Recklinghausen).
The Art Newspaper makes the point, "The acceptance of fakes has distorted our concept of Coptic art." This is exactly the issue that Gill and Chippindale have emphasised over the years. Collecting recently-surfaced antiquities (ancient or of modern creation) has intellectual consequences for the study of the ancient world.

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