Fake? The Art of Deception
In 1869, a stele with an inscription mentioning the biblical figure Mesha, King of Moab (Kings II 3:4), was found in Palestine. It was immediately acquired for the Louvre by Charles Clermont-Ganneau, the French consul in Jerusalem and a prominent archaeologist. This inscription stimulated great interest in the little-known Moabite people. A contemporary Jerusalem painter called Selim then undertook to produce wholly from his imagination examples of their ancient art, mainly in the form of terra-cotta pots and figurines. These are fairly comic in appearance and were greeted with skepticism; but the German consul (actually named Baron Münchausen) was determined not to be beaten again by the French and purchased over 1,700 of the objects for the new museum in Berlin. Their acquisition was conceived by officials of the new Reich as the first step in a program of Near Eastern archaeology to rival the great French and British achievements. In various heated exchanges that took place across Europe, German scholars and politicians defended their prizes. Only in 1876, when the great liberal historian Theodor Mommsen denounced the collection in a speech on the floor of the Prussian Diet, did the authorities give way and consign the material to storage.
The story of the Moabite forgery, with its timely implications about national prestige and cultural imperialism, suggests how revealing the study of fake art can be. Surprisingly, the Moabite objects were among the few infamous fakes not included in the enlightening and entertaining catalog of an exhibition held recently at the British Museum. Though the visual interest of the exhibits varied widely, the show brilliantly demonstrated the real importance of fakes and made a persuasive case for exhibiting them and studying them.
Many of the fakes on view were from the British Museum’s own collections, and the frankness with which it presented its own mistakes was admirable. The nearly universal phenomenon of faking allowed an enormous range of fake objects to be displayed, from Babylonian monuments to Victorian photographs to Maori war clubs. Among the contemporary counterfeit goods on display were Rolex watches and a fake Hockney drawing that Hockney himself had signed with the words, “This is not my work. D. H.”^2
Unfortunately, the catalog is less successful. In order to encompass such a broad selection of objects, ninety-five contributors were enlisted, which must be something of a record for a three-hundred-page book. This result should be contrasted with the basic work on art forgery, Otto Kurz’s Fakes, first published in 1948. Kurz, a Viennesetrained Warburg Institute scholar described as “a rare polymath” by Ernst Gombrich, had no collaborators but was able to write incisively about many of the fakes exhibited in London and he had much to say about many of the issues raised by the exhibition. I suspect that the British Museum organizers owe much more to Kurz’s work than the few bibliographic references to him would indicate.
A larger problem with Fake? derives from the attempt to make …