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.1 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 (This is the opposite of the fakes that the senile Salvador Dali helped, perhaps unwittingly, to create toward the end of his life when he signed blank sheets of paper on which lithographs in the style of his work were then printed and passed off as originals.)

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 1948.3 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 the catalog more than a guide to what one actually sees and to convert it into a book that will stand on its own. This follows the current fashion in catalogs but it creates particular difficulties in the case of Fake?, for as with many discussions of art, statements are often made that can only be tested by seeing the work of art itself. Unfortunately, the differences between similar real and false objects that are the subject of nuanced comparisons in the catalog often are not apparent in the published photographs, and the comments can become maddening when photographs are not provided at all (catalog numbers 213, 231). Apparently the authors expect that their assertions will be accepted simply on the basis of their authority, but this is not easy to do, since Fake?, unlike a catalog about Romanesque wall painting or Japanese prints, is about the previous errors of authorities concerning the works that were on view.

A fake can be defined as a work intended to deceive. The motives of its creator are decisive and the object itself cannot be blamed if it is later a cause of confusion or deception. The question mark in its title reveals the catalog’s broader concerns. Indeed, it might be equally entitled Original? and the text starts by noting a variety of possibilities somewhere between the two extreme categories of fake and original. These include works by a different hand that have stylistic continuity with the original; deliberate archaicism, as with Sung dynasty vessels of the twelfth century AD that imitate archaic bronzes of the twelfth century BC; misleading restoration; copying for pedagogical purposes; and the production of commercial facsimiles.


Fake? also reminds us that there are works of art from certain cultures for which such Western categories do not apply. This is true of much African art, where the authenticity of most of the objects that are collected is considered to depend on their function. The catalog illustrates two versions of a chi wara mask made by the Bambara people of Mali. One has pegs on its base allowing it to be attached to a cap for its intended ceremonial purpose. The second, which otherwise looks identical, lacks the pegs and is a replica made for sale. African carving is notoriously difficult to date but even if one assumes that the ritual mask is recent, made perhaps to replace a predecessor exhausted by hard use, while the replica is much older, only the ritual mask should be seen as authentic for it is tied to the form’s original function. That, at least, is the consensus of experts. One wonders if the Bambaran artists would always agree.

The greater part of Fake? is devoted to a chronological survey suggesting that faking feeds on the many different motives people have for collecting art, and that, on the whole, the faking of art flourishes when art collecting flourishes. In the early Roman Empire there was a widespread interest in collecting earlier Greek art, and therefore in faking it.4 No doubt many of the sculptures now labeled Roman copies were originally claimed to be Greek. The Augustan poet Phaedrus wrote:

As certain artists today succeed in getting a higher price for their new productions if they inscribe the name of Praxiteles on their marbles, Mys on their polished silver and Zeuxis on their paintings. So much greater is the favor…bestowed on bogus antiquities than sound modern productions.5

The European Middle Ages was less concerned with the formal qualities of art and more with precious materials and sacred associations. So while many mythic objects survive, such as reliquaries containing bits of the “true cross,” they have little to do with the faking of art. Like so much else, the modern age of faking began in the Italian Renaissance, with two linked developments: a passionate identification with the world of antiquity and a growing sense of individual artistic identity. In an often overlooked early essay, Erwin Panofsky suggested that there was no real concept of faking in the Italian Renaissance; instead there was a variety of efforts by artists and patrons to recreate the forms of the classical world.6 Panofsky overstates the case but several famous episodes from the life of the young Michelangelo illustrate the ambiguity of contemporary attitudes. When Michelangelo was an apprentice in the studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio, he was given a drawing of a head to copy, and, according to his first biographer, he

did so exactly that his master took for the original the copy which Michelangelo returned to him, until he found the boy rejoicing over his success with one of his companions. Afterwards many people compared the two sheets without finding any difference between them. For in addition to the perfect rendering of the original design, Michelangelo had been careful to smoke the paper of his copy in order to make it look as old as his model. He got quite famous by this incident.7

Soon after Michelangelo carved a Sleeping Cupid (now lost), which was admired by a patron who urged him “to make it look as if it had been buried under the earth. I will forward it to Rome, it will be taken for antique and you will sell it much better.”8 These suggestions were in fact followed, but we do not know who was responsible for carrying them out. In the summer of 1496, when Michelangelo traveled to Rome, he was probably concerned, among other things, to straighten out the affair of the now exposed Sleeping Cupid. It was then that he received his first major commission for the Bacchus, described by a contemporary as

ten palmi in height…the work in form and bearing in every part corresponds to the description of the ancient writers.9

This is the statue now in the Bargello in Florence, and generally considered the artist’s first masterpiece.

The young Michelangelo moved from emulating Ghirlandaio’s drawing and an antique statue to surpassing them. His astonishing powers of imitatio were admired, but with the creation of the Bacchus, Michelangelo made it clear that great art can assimilate and transcend what came before in a wholly original work. The man who commissioned the Bacchus proudly placed it in the center of a garden of antique sculptures.

Such sixteenth-century practices as smoking drawings and patinating marble reveal a new fascination with old things, an awareness of the processes of historical change that had significant consequences for fakery. For as information about the work of living artists circulated with increasing rapidity and it became more difficult to forge contemporary art successfully, the faker increasingly turned to the mute and uncomplaining past. Consequently, a fake had not only to appear stylistically appropriate but also to have suffered the vicissitudes of time.


The London catalog describes parallel developments during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in late Ming China, a mercantile society in which the newly rich aspired to present themselves as scholars who had appropriate art collections. Books of connoisseurship were published to guide well-to-do collectors, and the authors gave particular attention to forgery. In the catalog, Craig Clunas points out that the “Chinese word shangjian ‘to appreciate, to exercise connoisseurship,’ is made up of two elements glossed by one Ming writer as shang ‘to discriminate on grounds of quality’ and jian ‘to distinguish true from false.’ ” This concern was an appropriate one, for a great many old paintings, archaic jades, bronzes, porcelains, and lacquer were faked at the time.

In Europe prints were extremely profitable to fake, since, beginning in the second half of the fifteenth century, numerous impressions were made and widely distributed. The popular work of Albrecht Dürer was often faked, and Vasari claims that the purpose of Dürer’s second trip to Italy (1506) was to sue Marcantonio Raimondi in Venice for producing engraved copies of the German’s woodcut series Life of the Virgin, complete with the monogram “AD.” Marcantonio was forbidden by the Venetian authorities to reproduce Dürer’s signature or initials but, the catalog informs us, he was not forbidden to copy his work itself. Five years later Dürer still added to the bound editions of some of his prints the caveat “Beware all thieves and imitators of other people’s labor and talents of laying your audacious hand upon our work!”

Plagiarizing pictorial compositions was a separate problem. In 1475, an engraver, Simone di Ardizoni, complained to Lodovico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, that Andrea Mantegna had attacked him and accused him of sodomy apparently for reproducing Mantegna’s designs without permission. In the eighteenth century, William Hogarth became so exasperated by the artists who borrowed images from Marriage à la Mode and other works that he had a bill that would become one of the bases for modern copyright law introduced in Parliament to protect prints.

Fake? pays much attention to the collecting of classical antiquities in the late eighteenth century, when forgeries were created to take advantage of the taste of new collectors for large and imposing works of art. J. J. Winkelmann showed a weakness for such forgeries when he described the marble relief almost certainly made by Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (1716–1799) of a Girl Before a Round Temple as “one of the most beautiful works surviving from Antiquity.” He adored the Jupiter and Ganymede by his friend Anton Raphael Mengs, believing (until he was disabused) that it was an ancient painting similar to the recently discovered frescoes at Herculaneum.

The exhibition includes a number of Roman sculptures sent to Britain in the eighteenth century, and the catalog implies that there is something suspect about them because they have been heavily restored. This is unfair. Collectors such as Charles Townley expected their marble figures to have a finished look and the agent-dealers in Rome kept them happy by ingeniously combining very disparate fragments, nuova e antica, in the objects sent to northern Europe. This work was sometimes done by artists significant in their own right such as G. B. Piranesi, whose monumental vases and candelabras led a rival to refer to him as il cavaliere composito. It was only in the nineteenth century that a new and purer taste began to prevail, epitomized by the decision in 1816 not to restore the Elgin marbles.

The great age of faking began in the mid-nineteenth century, when the rediscovery of ancient civilizations such as the Etruscans and a new interest in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance co-incided with the acquisition of large new fortunes and with national cultural rivalries. These factors combined to encourage rampant and spectacular forging, documented at length in Fake?

Though the main motive for art faking is financial gain, the impulses behind it can be more complex, and some forgers are much more than simple crooks. Carl Wilhelm Becker (1772–1830) was one of the great fakers of ancient coins. He quite openly produced imitations, claiming that he was only providing replicas of rare pieces that were otherwise impossible to find. He was a superb engraver, making his dies by hand, but it is clear that occasionally he could not resist misrepresenting the age of his products. To antique the coins, he would place them in a box filled with iron filings and then attach the box to the axle of his carriage. To cover his tracks, he sent coins to Turkey and then reimported them. A friend of many aristocratic collectors and intellectuals, including Goethe, Becker is supposed, the catalog tells us, to have made his first forgery to take revenge on a fellow numismatist who had sold him a fake coin.

One of the best known forgers of medieval and Renaissance objects was Louis Marcy (1860–1934), who was born Luigi Parmeggiani in Reggio Emilia. He was apprenticed to a jeweler before moving to Paris, where his false medieval objects were sold to some of the leading museums and collectors in Europe and America. In 1893, while living with his mistress (the wife of a well-known Spanish painter) and two other women, Marcy was arrested as a dangerous anarchist and imprisoned for five months. After being released, he edited and wrote for a magazine, Le Connoisseur, which fiercely attacked capitalist art collecting and in particular art forgers. He later sold his remaining “antiquities” to Reggio Emilia, a city well known for its indifference to its own rich artistic inheritance. It seems possible that Marcy’s forgeries were partly inspired by a desire to subvert in a small way an economic and political system he opposed.

There still exists in Italy a bottega, or workshop, tradition specializing in luxury crafts such as wood gilding and leather stamping, and using age-old techniques. The artisans of the bottega take great pride in their ability to faultlessly restore damaged works, and also to create persuasive variants of, in particular, ancient marbles and early Renaissance art.10 One of the best known of these artisans was Giovanni Bastianini of Florence (1830–1868), whose first great coup was a bust of Savonarola, which he had colored and aged by a colleague before it was placed in an old Tuscan villa. There it was found and purchased by a dealer for 650 lire. When displayed, it caused such excitement that two well-known Italian painters paid 10,000 lire to save it for the nation. Bastianini’s marble bust of Lucrezia Donati (the mistress of Lorenzo de Medici) caused a sensation in the art world of its day. Even after it was unmasked as modern, the Victoria and Albert Museum paid eighty-four pounds for it in 1869, a price comparable to that of a genuine Renaissance piece.

A particularly versatile forger of this type was Alceo Dossena, whose kore, an archaic Greek maiden, was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in 1926, and almost immediately exposed. He could probably also take credit for what was, until recently, taken to be the highest-priced fake, an Annunciation supposedly by Simone Martini sold to the late Miss Helen Clay Frick for $225,000 in the 1930s.

The connoisseurship of old master paintings presents special problems in distinguishing fakes. To take only one of many examples, another artist’s variation on a famous original may be nearly as old as the original itself. One of the best known paintings in the Metropolitan Museum, The Majas on a Balcony from the Havemayer collection, until recently considered the museum’s most important work by Francesco Goya, has now, after an absence from the galleries, been rehung as “a copy, almost certainly made after the artist’s death.” We know that Goya made two versions of this subject and that he gave both to his son Javier, but they can be identified with a painting now in a private Spanish collection and with a version very close to the Metropolitan picture, formerly in the famous “Galerie-espagnole” of Louis-Phillipe and more recently in the collection of Edmond de Rothschild in Geneva. The Metropolitan picture is softer and less brilliant in its handling of paint than the other two works, and it remains to be explained how it was conceived, and by whom. Apparently it was produced by someone who was very familiar with the paintings inherited by Javier Goya. Was the Metropolitan’s Majas on a Balcony made simply as a variation on Goya’s paintings or in order to deceive, that is, as a fake?11

The faking of art often takes advantage of the excitement of scholars and collectors over new pictures or archaeological finds that are not well understood and whose characteristics have not been defined. Once a corpus of work has been extensively studied, forgers realize that any new candidates will be more skeptically received. The otherwise inexplicable success of the Dutch painter H. A. van Meegeren, who specialized in faking Vermeers, largely depended on the fact that Vermeer’s work had only begun to be recognized in the 1860s.12 For several decades it was thought to consist only of the classic interiors and two famous landscapes until the discovery of several large-scale “Italianate” paintings of mythological and religious subjects early in the twentieth century. Around 1935 van Meegeren created a “typical Vermeer,” the Lady and Gentlemen at a Spinet, a silly-looking creation which was quickly dismissed. But the eminent Dutch art historian Abraham Bredius, who was instrumental in establishing the authorship of Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (now in Edinburgh), predicted that more religious subjects by Vermeer would emerge, and van Meegeren fulfilled this prophecy by carefully executing in 1936 a Christ at Emmaus. This was shown to Bredius who pronounced it “of the highest art, of the highest beauty.” It was purchased by the museum in Rotterdam with specially raised funds, and a host of religious “Vermeers” by van Meegeren soon followed. Viewing one of them, Christ and the Adulteress (see page 10), in the Fake? show I found it difficult to comprehend how virtually all the Dutch art historians could be taken in by such a miserable daub; only the authority of Bredius and the intensity of the desire in Holland and elsewhere for more Vermeers can account for it.13

The jewelry of the Dark Ages was similarly faked at the beginning of this century when there was increased interest among scholars and collectors in the bold and abstract ornament of the peoples who had brought down the Roman Empire. The “Lombard Treasure” (catalog number 83) is a group of thirty mainly gold objects supposedly excavated in Northern Italy in 1929–1930. Doubts were immediately raised about these beautifully made weapons, buckles, and baubles, which imaginatively drew upon a variety of sources, especially the famous Lombardic helmet fragment of King Agilulf (in the Bargello, Florence), but they caused a public sensation. Some pieces were shown in a prestigious exhibition in London in 1930 and all were discussed and illustrated in a lavish catalog. However, by the end of the decade scholars had decisively shown that although the treasure came from Italy, it had been made during the late 1920s.

One piece of the “Lombard Treasure,” an iron sword with filigree and cloisonée decoration, has recently had a second life. With funds provided by the publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased it in 1988. The piece was labeled “Langobardic, about AD 600” and declared by the museum’s curator “by far the most spectacular” sword to have survived from the Dark Ages.14 Before it was acquired, the sword was subjected to careful scientific scrutiny, and it was only when someone noticed that it was included in the catalog of the “Lombard Treasure” that its origin was revealed.15 When the sword was on sale, I felt certain that it was old because of the extraordinary fineness of its goldwork and decoration. The Metropolitan has since quietly returned the sword to its vendor, which is something of a shame, for it is a spectacular object and more interesting than some of the pieces reflecting nineteenth-century fascination with the Dark Ages that were recently bought by the museum.

In an article twenty years ago in these pages, Robert Goldwater warned that the very possibility of understanding African art was threatened by

the increasing volume of commercially produced carvings…. If this process continues unchecked, it may warp our picture of African art. For our determination of style, and more particularly of its development, is not clear yet, and if the numerical proportion between truly traditional work, whether older or more recent, and work which is less traditional, whether because of acculturation or imitation, shifts radically, our standards may unwittingly shift with it.16

Goldwater’s fears for African objects seem unfortunately to have been realized in the case of the Renaissance jewelry because of the activities of the Aachen-based master, Reinhold Vasters (1827–1909). Vasters produced work signed with his own mark, but the recent rediscovery in the Victoria and Albert Museum of a large collection of his drawings made jewelry experts realize that many alleged achievements of Renaissance goldsmiths were in fact by Vasters. Analyzing these drawings, however, is not easy; while some are certainly his original designs, others are studies of genuine Renaissance pieces. The result is a muddle and only when an object has a history predating Vaster’s activity can we have some confidence in its authenticity.

Fake? describes many of the recent techniques for scientifically analyzing art to determine its authenticity. These sound like the tests given on entering a hospital: microscopic, ultraviolet, and X-radiograph examination; X-ray fluorescence, material and isotopic analysis; dating by radiocarbon, dendrochronological, and thermoluminescent methods. For almost every type of work of art, there is some scientific test that helps in dating it and showing where it came from. Yet, as the recent painful experience by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu can attest, the evidence of science is not absolute and must be weighed as carefully as other more traditional criteria.

In 1983 the Getty was offered for purchase a large, two-meter-high, beautifully preserved marble kouros. Kouroi and korai are full-length frontal standing statues of young men or women produced throughout Greece in the sixth century BC. It is unclear whether they represent deities or mortals but they seem to have been produced in connection with some ritual, perhaps for funerary purposes. They are famous for their enigmatic smiles, and art textbooks (such as the one by H. W. Janson) single them out for their naturalism and for being the first large-scale sculpture truly conceived in the round.

Confronted with such an extraordinary object the Getty museum curators proceeded very deliberately. They consulted with many of the world’s leading classical archaeologists, whose opinions were mixed, for a variety of reasons.17 It was not possible to locate the new kouros’ stylistic features within any of the carefully mapped regional groups of the type. Nor did the statue fit into the generally accepted chronological development. Analysis of the marble was not entirely convincing and the pale surface of the sculpture was troubling. Despite these problems, the Getty decided to acquire the kouros (see photograph on opposite page) on the basis of a scientific test that seemed to demonstrate that the marble had been carved in ancient times. This test demonstrated that a surface crust had been uniformly formed by a process called dedolomitization and the experts who conducted the test concluded that

In theory, this change could have been induced…by heat or pressure, but in practical fact, the magnitude…required to produce the uniform alteration surface over such a large object would make such an effort impossible by means known to science at present.18

Recently, however, Jeffrey Spier, an American archeologist working at the University of London, was shown the torso of another, smaller kouros, admittedly a fake, that had some of the unconventional stylistic features of the Getty piece, and it became clear that the Getty kouros was very probably modern as well.19 When Spier inquired into the origins of the second kouros, he was told that a large antique block of marble was stolen from a site in Sicily, taken to Rome, cut into two pieces, and carved into two kouri based on photographs in books. According to some experts at the Getty, the surface of each of the two statues was given different treatment; they speculate that forgers may have been dissatisfied with their first effort to create a convincing patina and may have tried a different method with the second kouros. None of the account given by Spier has been confirmed, but the Getty has since bought the second kouros (“for purposes of study”), and removed the full-length kouros from exhibit. The museum says it will eventually issue an official statement.

When we consider that the Getty paid over $7 million for the first kouros, we see how faking could, if the forgery is established, amount to crime on a grand scale—perhaps, in this case, the greatest triumph so far of the Italian bottega. It demonstrates the foolishness of placing excessive faith in the scientific analysis of art. The Getty Museum deserves much credit for being prompt and straightforward in dealing with this troublesome purchase.

The final section of Fake? “The Limits of Expertise,” is among the most fascinating. It presents a group of objects that have been condemned as forgeries in the past but that are now accepted as either authentic or still hotly controversial. An Egyptian limestone figure of monstrous proportions and crude execution would ordinarily be summarily dismissed except that it was found in an excavation at Abydos. It reminds us that the production of Egyptian art was not necessarily as stylistically and technically uniform as some experts have insisted. As dangerous as the corruption of faking is, perhaps more insidious is the dismissal of real art as fake because it does not conform to prevailing conceptions. This is why a museum should not be excessively sure of its judgments and dispose of or “de-access” a questionable work of art.

Fakes, on the whole, are worthy of preserving and studying. They are a valuable form of historical evidence providing a unique perspective on how the past perceived the past. They can be beautiful things in themselves. When the great English connoisseur Richard Payne Knight was told that his famous cameo of Flora was not antique but by Benedetto Pistrucci (1784–1855), he said it remained a uniquely beautiful gem, whoever had made it. Fakes testify to the fallibility of human judgments: they are worth keeping before us for just that reason.

This Issue

January 31, 1991