Forged antiquities and art history

An 8 foot tall forged terracotta statue, alleged to have been Etruscan. Displayed at the Met for decades. Notice it cannot bear its own weight.

I cannot speak to broader trends among art curators but I think it is a mistake to blame broad trends in the field of art history for the existence of forgeries. They have always been present, and likely always will be in some form. Failing to conduct a rigorous study of the history of an object should have course be criticized, but that kind of unfortunate mistake should be contrasted when an object which might have a good history free of the potential of looting. This happens for antiquities, works of art, and many other objects. Some forgeries are made maliciously to fool, other works of art which are inauthentic appear absent any wrongdoing of the creator.

In fact the shaming of institutions which takes place when a forgery or fake surfaces has a number of unfortunate consequences.

Mark Jones argued last week in an editorial that art historical scholarly research is “flourishing”, but curators are increasingly unable to detect forgeries and fakes because curators are losing physical contact with art. Jones, a former director of the V&A uses as his only real example the ways in which the Grenhalgh family was able to dupe auction houses and museums from a Council Estate (in other words public housing) in Bolton, England:

To illustrate what I mean, it may help to

A fake work of art created by Shaun Greenhalgh, which was purported to be a sculpture by Gauguin.

retell the Greenhalgh story. In November 2007 Shaun Greenhalgh was sent to prison for selling fakes. His Amarna Princess, an alabaster Egyptian sculpture, was bought for £439,767 by Bolton Museum in 2002, with grants of £360,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and £75,000 from the National Art Collections Fund (now the Art Fund). Greenhalgh carved the figure in his garden shed using basic DIY tools and stained it with clay and tea to make it look old. Fake provenance linked it to the sale of the Earl of Egremont’s collection at Silverton Park in Devon in 1892.

Greenhalgh had left school at 16. He, his octogenarian father and his mother, Olive, who made the phone calls, were quite uneducated. Olive had never travelled outside Bolton; they did not even own a computer. But they forged a Medieval reliquary; a painting by the Scottish Colourist Samuel Peploe (sold for £20,000); a Roman lanx (or dish) supposedly from Risley Park, which was displayed in the British Museum; some Lowrys; The Faun by Paul Gauguin; a Barbara Hepworth; portrait busts of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Chatterton and John Adam, sold at Sotheby’s; and three Assyrian marble reliefs.

He may be right that art history has lost its way, but I don’t think you can say that in some earlier period art curators had an advantage because they were physically closer to objects. Consider other examples, one of which was highlighted by Atlas Obscura last week. The Metropolitan Museum of art fell victim to a series of faked Etruscan terracotta objects. Not necessarily because the art curators at the Met had not been handling enough art, but rather a group of Italian forgers gave the Met curators forgeries of ancient objects which were exactly what the Met curators wanted.

In 1915, an expert on Greek and Roman antiquities at the Met, Gisela Richter, received an offer for the purchase of a large Etruscan warrior figure which had purportedly been discovered in an Italian field. That work and two others, some of the most famous works of art in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, were on display from 1933 until 1961. The terracotta warrior was in fact a fake, created in the workshop in the hill town of Orvieto. After convincing the Met’s purchasing agent to buy one terracotta warrior, the forging network led by Riccardo Riccardi and Alfredo Fioravanti set about crafting another object, a giant terracotta head, according to an account by former Met curator Thomas Hoving.

The four foot tall head

The Italian forgers used as a model a description by Pliny of a 25-foot tall statue of Jupiter. The head was four feet tall, and was broken into pieces before being fired to harden.

After successfully selling this head to the Met as well, the group created a final work, an 8-foot Collossal Warrior, pictured at the top. In 1921 the Met purchased this final work.

These works were the subject of a publication by the Museum, which described these three warriors as offering new insights into Etruscan terracotta works:

[O]ur knowledge of such Etruscan sculptures has been greatly enlarged by the three warriors acquired by the Metropolitan Museum, which have given us a new vision of Etruria in the late archaic period. They show us more forcibly than anything has heretofore her triumphant strength during her prime.

It was not until 1961 that the Met acknowledged the three terracotta figures had been forged, aided by a confession signed by Alfredo Fioravanti which was signed in the presence of the United States consul in Rome (Fioravanti also produced a left thumb of the large warrior, which he had kept as a souvenir). The whole affair was the subject of a book published by the Met, co-authored by Dietrich Von Bothmer.

Art forgery happens, because art historians are not perfect, rather than heap public ridicule on an institution, first the question should be asked whether the institution looked closely enough at the history of an object. In many cases institutions may not have, but the discovery of a forged work of art does not necessarily mean the entire field of art history is going astray.

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