Thursday, 4 February 2010

The intellectual consequences of forgeries

London's Victoria and Albert Museum has been hosting a short-lived exhibition of Fakes and Forgeries. The show has been mounted with the collaboration of the Art and Antiques Squad of the Metropolitan Police. One of the pieces on display was the Amarna princess --- created by Shaun Greenhalgh --- that was sold to the Bolton Museum with the support of the National Arts Collection Fund. The statue was even supplied with a false collecting history, namely that it had once resided in the Silverton Park collection. Greenhalgh was also responsible for the creation of the Roman Risley Park lanx.

The creation of forgeries and their admission to the corpus of knowledge can have serious intellectual consequences. This is the case for some Cycladic marble figures that were attributed to the hand of a supposed third millennium BC sculptor ('The Stafford Master') only to find that they were modern creations. Doubts about the antiquity of the 'artisan' had been raised when it was realised that the statues attributed to 'him' had not come from any known archaeological contexts.

The Bolton Museum case finds a parallel in the acquisition of the 'Getty kouros'. This sculpture, like the 'Amarna princess' was 'falsely historied' placing its initial acquisition around 1930.

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas also appeared to acquire what appeared to be a possible modern creation in 2000. It was reported that the 'Sumerian' statue had been purchased from a New York antiquities dealer --- Phoenix Solo --- for $2.7 million (Gabriella Coslovich, "Former state art gallery chief buys into another controversy", The Age (Melbourne) August 21, 2001; see also Russell Berman, "Antiquities Dealers Suddenly Emerge Into Sunlight", The New York Sun April 14, 2006). The statue was apparently returned to the dealer for a refund ("Museum wants refund for $2.7 million statue", AP August 17, 2001; see also Adam McGill, "The Kimbell and its critics", D - Dallas / Fort Worth February 1, 2002).

Forgeries have corrupted collections for centuries. So how can museums and collectors avoid them? One strategy is to insist that the object has a documented collecting history that can be verified. Such a 'provenance' (see earlier discussion of the term) needs to be the subject of a rigorous due diligence search. And such a search will, at the same time, protect the museum or private collector from acquiring a genuine ancient piece that had been looted in recent years.

Scholarship cannot ignore forgeries.

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1 comment:

Mark said...

A fake is quite the enigma. Certainly, there is a degree of skill involved that enables an artisan, who is hundreds of thousands of years removed from the original context, to create an object that has similar designs and carries with it an "authentic" aura. Was Lowenthal correct when he said, “Every relic displayed in a museum is a fake in that it has been wretched out of its original context?" Regardless of the beneficial or detrimental effects of fakes, they are culturally significant and worth studying as valuable forms of historical evidence.

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