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25 December 2000

How forgeries corrupt our top museums

Our knowledge of entire ancient civilisations is being corrupted by fakes. Foolish scholars and cura

By Peter Watson

For several years, the art trade in London has been awash with rumours about a fabulous secret hoard of ancient Middle Eastern silver. Called the “treasure of the western cave” and dating from the sixth century BC, it is said to be on the market at the premises of a certain West End dealer. It was allegedly discovered “by peasants” in a cave in the western highlands of Iran around 1992. Out of between 200 and 600 pieces, only a few have so far “surfaced”, and one or two have ended up in the brand new Miho Museum in Japan.

The Iranians were very angry that they managed to seize only part of the hoard and that the rest was smuggled abroad. But now they may worry less. The academic journal Source (published by Susan Weber Soros, wife of the billionaire George Soros) has just produced cogent evidence – based on anomalies and anachronisms in the inscriptions and decorations – that at least one piece, a gilt silver beaker in the Miho, is a fake.

Fakes have always been known to exist in the world of antiquities, but what is now emerging is the astonishing scale of them. A report imminent from the Archaeological Institute of America concludes that no less than 80 per cent of all “ancient” west African sculpture on the market – especially Nok and Ife terracottas – are fake. This report identifies individual forgers in, for example, Mali, and names dealers in western European capitals whom these forgers supply.

Another article in Source, by the physicist and historian of ancient music, Bo Lawergren from Columbia University (on attachment to Oxford University this year), identified as fake an “iconic” piece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This object is a “Cycladic harpist”, of which the museum is so proud that it features it in its publicity material. The modernistic simplicity of Cycladic figures, made of white stone, appeals to contemporary collectors. But they are notoriously difficult to date. Lawergren argues that, in this case, the harp is too big; the shape is wrong; the cross-section is wrong; and the harpist’s hands are in the wrong position to pluck the strings.

The most impressive survey of all is Oscar White Muscarella’s The Lie Became Great: the forgery of ancient near eastern cultures. Published earlier this month, it identifies more than 1,250 fakes in the world’s greatest museums – 16 in the British Museum, 21 in the Ashmolean, 37 in the Louvre, 45 in the Met, 12 in Glasgow’s Burrell Collection, and many more in establishments from Stockholm to Jerusalem and Berlin to Los Angeles, including almost the entire ancient holdings of a new museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

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Can the antiquities field really be so riddled with fakes? Muscarella knows what he is talking about. He gained his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, one of the great US classical archaeological schools. He has excavated at nine sites in Turkey and Iran, and is a senior research fellow in the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Met. And he makes the remarkable claim that there is a “forgery culture” in many of the world’s top museums.

By this he means that the relationship between museum curators, certain archaeologists and the antiquities trade is unhealthy and corrupt, aimed more at securing high prices for antiquities and striking objects for display than at advancing knowledge.

Muscarella goes so far as to say that many curators of ancient art in museums “know and care little about scholarship, let alone archaeology”. He names dealers in London and New York who have traded fake antiquities, but, more to the point, he indicts several leading scholars – British, French, German and American – for admitting fakes to their museums. They have lapsed, he says, partly because they have been hoodwinked by dealers, but also because they sometimes fear offending rich donors who take tax breaks on (fake) gifts, and because to expose fakes can risk irritating senior colleagues and jeopardising promotion prospects.

The tone of Muscarella’s polemic may be gauged from these comments about one former director of a leading museum: “The reader should be warned that much of the information in [his] books . . . includes lies, half-lies, convenient conflations and many omissions.”

How can this “forgery culture” flourish? The answer is to be found in the fact that about 80 per cent of the artefacts which pass through the antiquities trade have no definite provenance. In other words, it is not known where they were found and therefore, even if they are genuine, they can tell us little about ancient history.

People in the trade say that the bulk of these objects were found in “casual discoveries”. Shamefully, they know that this is not true. They advance the fiction because it suits their commercial purposes. The reality is that the artefacts come from looting, not by local farmers “happening” on a few finds, but by organised gangs of criminals using such tools as mechanical diggers to destroy whole sites in their indiscriminate search for saleable items. On a few occasions, the police have caught such gangs red-handed.

Muscarella’s evidence, and that published by the Archaeological Institute of America, throw new light on the sheer size of this traffic. Muscarella identifies 24 categories of near eastern antiquities that are known only from unprovenanced items – in other words from objects that have no history of excavation. These include Achaemenian sculptures, Median portraits, Marlik figurines, Phoenician material “found in” Iran, and Indus valley artefacts “discovered in” Luristan. His point is simple: since none of these objects has ever been found in a legitimate dig, is there any reason to suppose that any of it is genuine? Isn’t it perfectly possible that these entire categories are made up of fakes?

The most celebrated of these cases relates to Cycladic figurines. These have been studied closely by two British scholars, David Gill at Swansea and Christopher Chippindale in Cambridge. As they have shown, only female figurines have ever been found in legitimate digs, and all of those are of a certain size, about the length of a forearm.

However, after the first female figures were discovered, and proved popular with collectors, male figures – slightly larger and with some playing the harp – began to appear on the market, though none was found by reputable archaeologists. Are these real archaeological objects? Or is this what Muscarella dismisses as “bazaar archaeology”, meaning fakes produced to satisfy commercial demand (because bigger, “rarer” figures are inevitably more valuable) and, in effect, corrupting the archaeological record? When you realise that similar corruption may be happening in the 24 other areas identified by Muscarella, you begin to see how much damage plunder and faking entail.

Following these reports, we must now accept that fakes are far more widespread in the antiquities world than had previously been supposed. Muscarella underlines this when he notes that 40 per cent of the objects tested at the Oxford Thermoluminescence Laboratory, which was set up to determine the age of so-called ancient objects, proved to be fake; that half the antiquities brought to Sotheby’s for sale are turned away as fakes; that the art market is awash with scores of fake Sasanian (Persian, third century AD) artefacts and hundreds of north Syrian cylinder seals; and that 25,000 forgeries of pre-Columbian art enter the market every year.

Antiquities-forging workshops are known to exist in Seville and Bangkok. The forgers swing into action once a commercial demand develops for almost any brand of antiquity. This couldn’t happen if the trade in plundered (ie, largely unprovenanced) antiquities was closed down.

The “treasure of the western cave” is a classic example of how faking works. Undoubtedly, there is somewhere a hoard of genuine silver, though what date it is, and where exactly it comes from, are unknown. But there is also a penumbra of complete fakes on the market, together with “pastiches” – genuine but plain vessels, embellished with modern, fake decoration. Either way, the archaeological record is corrupted. In the case of the Iranian silver, we may have an entire civilisation about which we may never know the complete truth. Think how much poorer we should be if we weren’t aware of the significance of Sumer, Pergamum or ancient Athens.

The antiquities trade likes to play down not only the extent of looting and faking, but also the overlap between the two. These latest reports let the cat out of the bag. Faking is big business, and is of such a standard that even the greatest scholars may be fooled some of the time. But it is the overlap with plundered antiquities that is the most significant factor, and which leads to the culture of forgery.

These twin evils have already corrupted the archaeological record more than we can ever know. Collectors of unprovenanced antiquities – whether private individuals or curators in museums – need to be aware that, in acquiring these objects, they not only aid the plunder of potentially invaluable sites, but put themselves at the mercy of fakers as well. They are being not just knaves, but fools.

Peter Watson is a research associate at the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge