IME Blog

Museum Ethics Q & A: Museums and Forgeries

Martha Morris, Associate Professor and Assistant Director, Museum Studies Department, George Washington University:

Museums have dealt with the issues of forgeries and fakes over time in various ways.  As scholarly knowledge and conservation science have advanced, and as the value of art and artifacts increased, there has been a much more concentrated effort to assure that fakes are identified.  In recent years there have been celebrated cases, such as the Getty Kouros, and other antiquities; Piltdown man;  various works reattributed to “school of” well known artists such as Rembrandt; and outright copies of art and artifacts by contemporary forgers.
Forgery is a popular topic. See the on line Museum of Forgery, which has a section called “Do it yourself”…sounds like fun! (www.  In all seriousness, a museum can be in a world of trouble if they are confronted by a forgery in their possession.  The museum may have been challenged by an outside party who is claiming a forgery, or their staff may have initiated an internal review based on their own research.   If there is a forgery in the collection, many questions arise.  How long has it been in the museum?  Did proper provenance analysis occur before the object was acquired?  Was there a warranty of authenticity with the title?  Did a donor take a tax deduction for their gift that might now be called into question?  Is the item on loan? What written policies and procedures have been developed to deal with this situation in the museum?  Should the artifact be deaccessioned, but retained by the museum?  What information should be shared with the public?  Most museums will make an effort to explain in labeling, on their website, or in press briefings, the story behind the forgery.  Recently information surfaced about the Museum of Fine Art in Vietnam which displayed copies of its collections during the war as a safeguard. Now the information is coming out about this and the museum is struggling to deal with this situation
There are serious issues to be considered in regard to forgeries such as the legal rights and reputation of former owners, criminal proceedings that may result, and possibly losing custody of an artifact that is seized by law enforcement. Those museums which do retain the objects often attempt to use them to educate the public about the process of attribution, curatorial research, conservation science and the ability to distinguish fake from real.   The Brooklyn Museum hosted a conference on this topic in April 2009.  A variety of experienced museum professionals presented their own experiences in dealing with forgeries.  This level of transparency is very important.  Fakes and forgeries can touch nerves with many people. Not the least of which is the museum’s board.  Keeping them informed of the situation is critical. Also, community members, donors, collectors, conservators, dealers and colleagues at other museums all can play a critical role. Once a forgery is discovered and documented the museum should take steps to inform all stakeholders.  A press release should be prepared and information posted on the website.  Museums could opt to display the fake artifact as long as sufficient information is contained in labels and that staff and volunteers are aware of all the facts.

Alex Bauer, Editor-in-Chief, International Journal of Cultural Property, and Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, CUNY, Queens:
When it comes to forgeries, I’d like to remark on two things: first, the system of practices that may have allowed such forgeries to be “passed,” and the responsibility to disclose the forgery to the public.  I will remark with specific regard to that class of objects known as “antiquities” or ancient art, since the “new discovery” of previously unknown artifacts is quite common, thus providing an easy way for forgeries to appear. Many of these points apply to the art market as a whole, but are perhaps more prevalent with regard to antiquities.
Scholars have long noted that the antiquities market provides fertile ground for forgeries.  Some of the most famous objects suspected to be forgeries that Martha mentioned—the Getty Kouros (or the New York one, for that matter)—are antiquities, and some scholars have estimated that as many as 60% of known “Cycladic” marble figurines may not be authentic.  One reason that forgeries can appear so easily in the antiquities market is that the number of discovered antiquities may be a fraction of that which was produced by past cultures.  It is a lot harder to convince scholars of the authenticity of a previously unknown Van Gogh than a previously unknown Babylonian cylinder seal.  Ancient sites are being discovered all the time by scholars and by accident—when a new road is being built, for example—and so it is almost impossible to keep track of all the objects that exist.  When the corpus of known materials is so fluid, adding “new” ones to the mix is a lot easier.
But “passing” forged antiquities is made even easier by the secrecy and anonymity permitted by the art market.  With any other major purchase—such as with a house or a car—you would expect to see a full history of its title and would probably be suspicious if you were simply told to pay a million dollars in exchange for the keys, no questions asked.  But in the antiquities market, objects are routinely sold with minimal or no provenance, a situation which facilitates the sale of stolen, illegally transferred, or forged objects.  Once the object is “authenticated” based purely on stylistic determination, it is then easily sold as the real thing.
And given that with antiquities, the “authenticity” of an object very often depends on some expert simply calling it “authentic” (in a kind of tautology), this can result in an over-attribution of objects as authentic because of incentives to do so as well as disincentives to call them fake.  On the incentive side, an expert appraiser (who might be a curator, an art dealer, an insurer, or an auction house) can provide cover for questionable objects in a collection in exchange for access to other, “good” objects from that collection, continued good relations, or even money.  On the disincentive side—and perhaps a bit less corrupt—appraisers may over-authenticate questionable objects to avoid legal action: more than once, a collector has sued an appraiser for daring to suggest that an “unprovenanced” object he or she collected may be a forgery.  When suggesting an object may be forged drives away business and simultaneously brings legal action, it is no surprise that experts are reluctant to make such a determination, and museums are reluctant to admit it when they may have received or displayed such an object.
To remedy this problem and bring needed transparency to the stories of how objects get into collections in the first place, the antiquities market (and especially museums) should move toward a policy of disclosing provenance and prohibiting anonymity in transactions.  This would help prevent the “passing” of forgeries and would constitute ethical practices of curation and display in museums.  Currently, most antiquities collections are displayed in a manner opposite their more modern counterparts: the less information the better.  A typical museum label in an ancient art gallery may read something like “Silver bowl, Middle Bronze Age, from Transcaucasia or northwestern Iran, Purchased 2009.”  The reason for that imprecision in its source is not because its source is unknown, but because to definitively say that the object was found at a specific (and recent) date from a specific site in, say, eastern Turkey, would be to admit that it was smuggled out contrary to national and international law.  The debate over these laws aside, the resulting desire to keep information at a minimum is what allows forgeries to continue.

As a result, most curators and many scholars of ancient art will not admit the painful truth that much of what is considered “authentic” and thus much of what we “know” about some ancient cultures (such as the Cycladic) may very well be false.  Oscar Muscarella, theenfant terrible of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Near Eastern Section, has written about this in his The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures.  But while that book may be sensationally eye-opening for some, I think his greater contribution to this issue—and an example for ethical curatorial practice—is his group of object entries in the publication of the Met’sArt of the First Cities exhibit, many of which conclude with a statement that his commentary and interpretation of the object should be considered only provisional since the provenance, and thus the authenticity, of the object is not known.  If museums are meant to serve the public as educational and cultural institutions, then they must embrace transparency for their own legitimacy and for the sake of promoting truth.


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