Antiques, Fakes and Everything In Between

One of this Kat's favourite exhibitions at the British Museum was shown two decades ago. Entitled "Fake? The Art of Deception", the exhibition sought to bring together a variety of examples spanning a wide range of chronological periods and geographic areas in order to explore the multi-faceted nature of fakes. The exhibition spawned a fascinating companion volume, bearing the title of the exhibition and edited by Mark Jones et al. here.

The book has occupied a prominent space on my bookshelf for over 20 years and I continue to read it from time to time, if for no other reason than to remind me of the rich trove of fakery that has accompanied homo sapiens for millennia. Fakes come in at least three kinds. One is the making of a faithful copy of the original. Another is to take the original object and to add additional material and content. Yet another is to create an object in such a way as to give that false impression of past provenance. The Jones book reminds us that, in various settings, the ability to create a true copy of an existing creation was culturally valued. The rise of the copyright regime put paid to that sentiment, but the process by which copyright fully supplanted the culture of the admired faker is an interesting one. This Kat would be delighted to be directed to any studies in this regard.

Putting past cultural sensibilities to fakes to one side, a consideration of the Jones book highlights the context in which fakes flourish. Fakes are a creature of a certain commercial milieu. Thus, it is observed that
"[t]]he faking of art and antiques occurs only in cultures in which old objects and objects associated with a famous individual can command high prices. This is a relatively unusual phenomenon. In most cultures and at most times, there has been no special premium on old things.... [I[n the eighteenth century a new fascination arose for old things because they were old." 
 Creating a successful fake is itself a special form of artistic skill. As noted,
"[t]o create an accurate reproduction with a convincing aura of age, or to make a plated metal object that looks solid, requires a whole range of skills in addition to those usually possessed by the craftsman." 
Holding any ethical or moral consideration constant, fakery is itself an art form. The arena in which the success of this art form takes place is what the book terms "the limits of expertise," in which the skills of the fake master are set against forensic acumen of the so-called expert. The ambiguity of this struggle between creator and detective ensures that
"certainty remains elusive and happily so, for it is the mystery surrounding [the alleged fake] that lends these objects half their magic",
if not their commercial value. Indeed, the book frames the ultimate question: "why does an object which is declared a fake lose virtue immediately?" I thought about the ambiguous nature of fakes and fakery in reading a report that appeared in the English edition of the 15 March issue of the Israel daily newspaper Haaretz here. Entitled "After a Decade, Israel Court Acquits Collector of Forging Jesus' brother's term," the case involved a criminal action brought against an individual named Oded Golan for allegedly selling forged antiques, in particular, "the Jehoash inscription, a shoebox-sized tablet inscribed with Biblical-style Hebrew instructions on caring for the Jewish Temple, and an ossuary, or ancient burial box bearing the inscription, "James, brother of Jesus."

The court ruled in favour of the defendant in all but several minor accounts. The Jerusalem District Court did not specifically hold that the objects were authentic. Rather, the court ruled that, despite years of discussion and professional investigation and analysis, the State had not met its burden of proof in showing that the artifacts were forged. The focus of the investigation was on the inscriptions, particularly that which stated "James, brother of Jesus." It was the inscription that conferred value to the objects, which otherwise would presumably be simply several more of their type from that period. The court found that the State did not prove that the inscriptions had been added by the defendant or on his behalf; therefore, the court could not impose criminal liability on the defendant. The court so ruled, despite the fact two professional committees, established on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, had concluded that the objects were forged.

This case suggests two observations about the way that our society addresses the issue of fakes, especially when the objects are of an older provenance. First, that the case was a criminal action points to the fact that objects of a sufficient age, at least for certain types, become a public issue of national heritage. As such, unlike a criminal action for copyright infringement, which provide a penal sanction for what is fundamentally a private right, here the right in toto is conceived of in terms of protecting a defined public interest (what it says about our society, whereby the making of an alleged fake of an object that was itself created long before the sovereign itself came into being, is itself an interesting issue).  Secondly, the point-counterpoint between the alleged fake master and the forensic expert, when the public interest is at stake, may itself be subordinated to the adjudicative machinery of the courts. This means that, on top of the inherent uncertainty in the resolution of a dispute between the fake master and the expert over the authenticity of an object, there is added an additional layer of uncertainty, the courts.

Let me conclude with the following: During a recent nocturnal peregrination, this Kat found some parchment in a cave hear his home, on which the following Latin text appears (thank goodness for my high school Latin)--"Julius Caesar slept here." Is anyone interested?
Antiques, Fakes and Everything In Between Antiques, Fakes and Everything In Between Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, March 16, 2012 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. John Berger's seminal Ways of Seeing discusses this issue in the first of his essays. This book came out in 1972 and I still reread it from time to time.


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