In Syria, looting causes faked antiquities too

Louis Vignes, Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, Syria (1864)

Reporting for the L.A. Times last week, Nabih Bulos indicates that with the rise in looting of ancient sites, the market demand is starting to also be met by forged antiquities:

“In the last year, we’ve caught thousands of pieces. We noticed that the percentage of fakes has risen up from 30 to 40% to over 70%,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums.

“Bibles, coins, statues … the buyer wants a certain model of artifact. The seller doesn’t have it, so you have workshops that produce fakes.”

On his laptop, Abdulkarim played a video depicting an open-air workshop, which he said was in the town of Khan Al-Subul in the rebel-held province of Idlib. Men, their hands covered in white dust, sit cross-legged on the ground, carving delicate patterns on pieces of stone.

Off to the side, one worker washes down a column head with a wet sponge. The rivulets of liquid work their way down the stone’s surface, leaving a dark sediment that would give it the appearance of age, according to Abdulkarim.

But are the faked antiquities new, or are we just paying more attention because of the loud destruction and institutionalized iconoclasm taking place in parts of Syria.

In 2009, Charles Stanish argued that he stopped worrying about the sale of faked antiquities on internet sites such as eBay, in the hopes that antiquities fakers would ultimately put antiquities forgers and looters out of business. In Syria at least, this report indicates that instead, the art market’s failure to often sell objects with detailed and legitimate histories leads to first looting, then also a rise in faked artworks. Some of course will argue that there should not be a market for this material at all. Others argue that the market should be preserved. The inability to compromise, of these two competing interests to even discuss the possibility of the other existing has served to preserve not the sites or context, but the black market in looted archaeological material and fake antiquities.

 

  1. Nabih Bulos, After Islamic State Institutionalized Looting in Syria, the Market for Fake Antiquities is Booming, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 31, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-fake-antiquities-2016-story.html.

A Hollow Victory for Mexico in the Barbier-Mueller Sale

Lot 137, which did sell,
for 2,001,500 Euro

On Friday and Saturday in Paris Sotheby’s auctioned a number of allegedly Pre-Columbian objects from the Barbier-Mueller collection.

Nord Wennerstrom reports that many of the lots sold for less than the low estimate, and 79 of 151 lots failed to sell. His take: the auction ended as “inauspiciously as it began”. Sotheby’s lists its sale results here.

The auction generated considerable interest last week. In anticipation of the sale Mexican officials protested and noted: “Of the 130 objects advertised as being from Mexico, 51 are archaeological artifacts that are (Mexican) national property, and the rest are handicrafts”. In this case “handicrafts” is a very polite way of pointing out that some of the objects are fakes or forgeries. In this case the sale continued, but the considerable notoriety surrounding the sale certainly diminished the market value of these objects, and in many cases made these objects too toxic perhaps for some buyers.

French diplomats last week did not intervene in the sale noting that none of the objects had appeared on the Interpol database, or the “red list” published by the International Council of Museums.

Sotheby’s Paris on its website stated the collect was started in 1920 by Jose Mueller. His son-in-law Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller broadened the collection. Sotheby’s described Barbier-Mueller as “a great aesthete and man of culture”.

Here’s an extended quote from the overview given by Sotheby’s:

In 1908 and 1909 Josef Mueller acquired major works by Hodler and Cézanne in Paris. While initially focusing on Western masterpieces of universal appeal, he soon became attracted by important works of Pre-Columbian art, his first purchase being an Aztec ‘water goddess’ in Paris in 1920. His son-in-law Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, a great aesthete and man of culture, brought this high standard of collecting to other fields, such as African Art, Oceanic Art and Cycladic Art. His dedicated focus has resulted in the well-deserved reputation for excellence that the collections have today. Mr. Barbier-Mueller and his wife Monique Barbier-Mueller (Josef Mueller’s daughter), who has pursued modern and contemporary art, have achieved one of the foremost collections of art in private hands, one defined by their sophisticated knowledge and refined eye.

Some of this collection had been in existence since the early part of the 20th century. But not all of it. In a case like this, Mexico and other nations of origin have a limited range of options here. Their best way to attack the sale of these objects is exactly what it did. Make a public protest over the sale, and enlist the power of the press to reduce the market value of these under-provenanced objects. We are unsure now what will happen to the objects which did not sell. Contrast this situation with what might have happened had this auction occurred in the United States.

Increasingly unprovenanced objects are being regulated by Federal prosecutors, at least in New York and St. Louis. We certainly don’t know if a forfeiture would have happened in this case, or indeed if that was even a consideration in the decision to sell these objects in Paris rather than New York. But it is yet another example of the complex web of legal rules and norms which apply to the antiquities trade.

  1. Mark Stevenson, Mexico demands Sotheby’s halt auction of artifacts, The Washington Post, March 23, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/mexico-demands-sothebys-halt-auction-of-artifacts/2013/03/21/e5d18316-9274-11e2-bdea-e32ad90da239_story.html (last visited Mar 25, 2013).
  2. Mike Boehm, Mexico trying to stop antiquities sale at Sotheby’s in Paris, Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-mexico-wants-to-stop-sothebys-precolumbian-art-auction-20130321,0,5085665.story?track=rss (last visited Mar 25, 2013).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

An Interview with Tomas Michalik, Slovak Lawyer and Archaeologist

Fake antiquities seized in Slovakia in 2010

I recently had a chance to have a conversation with Tomas Michalik, a lawyer and archaeologist working to protect cultural heritage sites in his native Slovakia. Slovakia is a central European nation with an impressive array of cultural heritage sites, but also some unique challenges. Many of the areas I talk about here a lot are the Mediterranean, but heritage protection and preservation is is a struggle in every single nation, and it is good to remind ourselves that other nations need consideration, not just the same usual suspects. Here is an excerpt of our conversation:

What challenges do heritage advocates in Slovakia face?


The first (and in my point of view most important) challenge is the problem with the enforcement of the law. The Act on the Protection of Monuments and Historic Sites (No. 49/2002 Coll. as amended) has generally very good wording, a system of competences and has created legal consequences.  But due to our legal traditions and sometimes even legal thinking which are remnants of the communist era, we face difficulties with the enforcement of the law. Prosecution and courts sometime have very strange interpretations of the Act. Administrative delicts [legal causes of actions or torts] are usually being solved by Regional Monuments Boards or by the Monuments Board of the Slovak Republic, but the most important cases, like the destruction of the 18th century pastorate (“house of the priest”) in Žilina, were stopped by the prosecution, under very problematic justification. Another problem is the lack of staff of the Monuments Board of the Slovak Republic. Our colleagues usually do their job very well (at least in Slovak conditions), but they don´t have enough people to control the implementation of the decisions in practice out in the field. And Unfortunately, there is sometime political pressure when the interests of somebody important at local or central level are endangered.


What kinds of sites and objects are at risk of looting in Slovakia?


Mainly archaeological sites are targets of looting. In the past, mainly in the 1990´s, churches suffered thefts, with sacred objects stolen to be sold to collectors, mainly abroad. Thanks to the Ministry of Culture all the important churches and church objects have alarm equipment today, but the loss since the 1990´s is irrecoverable. Since this time we also face the problem with treasure hunters, usually using metal detectors. This problem is huge not only in Slovakia or other countries of Central Europe, but also within the rest of Europe. In 2006 or 2007 Slovakia (specifically the Ministry of Interior, with the cooperation of Ministry of Culture) established a specialized police unit especially to police culture crimes. We have trained them (and later also prosecutors), but its future is not certain. We had also some success, as several cases of metal detectorists were already solved by the court. There are different kinds of archaeological sites which are the objects of looting, mainly castle ruins, prehistoric hillforts, open-air sites, Roman camps or graveyards. Due to establishment of better tools to protect (mainly archaeological) cultural heritage we have enacted more strict legal rules, which came into force atSept. 1st, 2011.

Looting is often blamed on a local population who may not conceive of the value of their heritage. I think this argument often can become problematic, as it quickly justifies looting and illegal export. What can you tell us about local attitudes about heritage?

Unfortunatelly, local people usually do not recognize the value of their heritage. But I think the situation is getting better, and there are some campaigns and a general increase of information. This has caused local people to have much more interest in what they have within their villages and towns. Personally, I have lectured for the students not only in the Department of Archaeology, but also in the village I come from for the children within the Lecture of Regional Education. When comparing with the past, local people now inform the police or their mayor on problematic and suspicious metal detectorist´s activities within the cadastre of the municipality. The ministry of Culture has provided a lot of money to the conservation and restoration of the cultural monuments in Slovak towns and villages so people begin to be proud of these monuments. In 2011 Ministry of Culture initiated program of conservation of castle ruins with the help of unemployed people, which is financially covered not only from our budget, but it is supported also by the European Social Fund. Principle stands on our belief that it is good to motivate unemployed people not only to take a money from the state for doing nothin, but to contribute to the preservation of the local monuments. In 2011 pilot program started with 2 castles (Šariš –http://www.hrad.wbl.sk/ and Uhrovec –http://www.uhrovec.sk/index.php?id_menu=45851), and in 2012 the project was broadened up to 20 castles. We presume continuation of the project also in 2013 and probably later. We consider involvement of local people as the most important point in the protection of cultural heritage, because they can help in situ. In my country local people usually do not accept academic attitude – they prefer practical measures.


Can you point to a success story, where an object or site was protected or preserved?


One of the very good points in the conservation is the above-mentioned project of the conservation of the castles with the help of unemployed people. But another special case, based on our long tradition of voluntarism (which is one of characteristic features of Slovak monuments conservation, already since the past) is a project of conservation of the ruins of the monastery of St. Catherine in Dechtice. Young Christian people decided to conserve it in the mid 1990´s and since this time this project became one of the most authentic projects in Slovakia. All the processes and methodology are strictly authentic / medieval. You can find more at www.katarinka.sk, unfortunatelly only in Slovak language, but you can find a lot of short movies there. In the last the year Ministry of Culture supported the effort of the young people, with the help of experts for conservation, archaeology, architecture and other fields. Recently we had some colleagues from Norway here and they were really surprised about the authentic style of the restoration. 

 Another great point is the identification of a workshop, where fakes of archaeological finds were manufactured. This workshop was identified by our special police team in 2010. We presume that the fakes were put in the black market and sold to collectors of archaeological finds. Very impressive pictures which you can see at http://www.minv.sk/?41&sprava=unikatny-pripad-policia-odhalila-podvody-s-falzifikatmi-archeologickych-nalezov


I know you are seeking support for your research, in an ideal world what kind of research project would you like to undertake and what do you hope to accomplish?


I believe that cultural heritage belongs to everybody and they should not be owned by the individual, without the access of public. Therefore I would like to compare national approaches to the protection of cultural heritage, especially archaeological finds and archaeological sites. Thank to my professional background – doctor of law and PhD. in archaeology, with experiences in central state administration and at university – I think I can contribute to knowledges and the best practice which should be applied in different regions. Due to the different legal traditions and historical progress of different parts of the world / Europe also the approach must also be different in interest of archaeological heritage protection. I think that the public usually doesn´t recognize real threat connected with looting, becuase the people don´t see the unique objects which were looted. Therefore I would like to continue in my previous work and to compare not only the legal rules (which in some regions are not enforceable in practice), but also practical measures in order to prevent the looting by the work with local public. As the result I want to identify the best practice which should serve as manual for archaeologists, state and municipal administration, museums and potentially for police and prosecution. I would like to connect theoretical presumptions from scientific literature and practical experiences I have.

To learn more about Dr. Michalik and his research he can be contacted at  tomas.michalik “@” gmail.com

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Forger Ken Perenyi on NPR

After John F. Herring by Ken Perenyi, circa 1989.
A genuine fake painting by Ken Perenyi
Ken Perenyi, the author of a new book detailing his 30-year career as an art forger does not exactly seem to have reformed. If you are going to forge, don’t forge Picasso, and the experts practically fool themselves.

Perenyi made millions of dollars over 30 years with more than 1,000 forgeries, allowing him to jet set around the world. His highest earning work was a Martin Johnson Heade forgery that sold for more than $700,000. Perenyi tells the story of how he got away with it in his new book, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger. So does he hold on to guilt about duping individuals, museums and galleries who paid top dollar for his work? “No. Not at all,” Perenyi tells Laura Sullivan, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered. “I take pride in my work, and I think it speaks for itself. I would find it difficult to feel bad about creating beautiful paintings.”

  1. “A Contest Of Wits”: A Former Forger Recalls His Art, NPR.org (2012), http://www.npr.org/2012/08/26/159369271/a-contest-of-wits-a-former-forger-recalls-his-art.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Weiss Case: Pleading Guilty to Getting Duped

Two “genuine fake” ancient coins

My grandfather once had a shiny piece of jewelry (I think it was a cubic zirconia pinky ring) which he would describe as a “genuine fake diamond ring”. He would say it fast enough that if you weren’t listening close you thought he would just say ‘genuine’.

Early this year a prominent physician, Arnold Peter C. Weiss, was arrested and charged with dealing in recently looted coins. Last week Weiss pleaded guilty to three counts of attempted criminal possession of the coins. He thought they had been recently excavated. But they were in fact modern forgeries—a predictable consequence of not asking enough questions about the history of these objects before their acquisition. Unlike Charles Stanish, who is heartened by these fakes which don’t cause the looting of a site, I think these fakes do pollute our understanding of the past and defraud our collective cultural heritage.

Chasing Aphrodite reports that as part of the plea agreement reached with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, the defendant must serve 70 hours of community service, forfeit 23 other ancient coins seized, and pay a $3,000 fine. But he has some writing to do as well:

The court also required Weiss, the former treasurer of the American Numismatic Society, to write a detailed article in the society’s magazine detailing the widespread practice of dealing in coins with unclear ownership histories. It will describe the corresponding threat to the archaeological record and propose solutions for reforming the coin trade. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office said, “Thanks to today’s disposition, the article to be written by the defendant for a coin trade magazine will raise needed awareness about unprovenanced coins, and will promote responsible collecting among numismatists.”

It should be a real page turner. I suspect Matthew Bogdanos, the Manhattan assistant DA had much to do with that writing assignment.

Paul Barford notes of the fakes:

Those coins always looked to me suspect, too fussy and the Akragas looked like it was a copy of another in a published collection, but who am I to question what the US authorities are up to, eh? (back in January, I was asked to keep my suspicions to myself, so did, but glad to see I am not going crazy). Anyway it turns out that those “priceless ancient coins” “weren’t worth a wooden nickel”.

Rick St. Hilaire thinks this case may be the start of increased use of state laws to police the illicit antiquities trade:

Indeed, all fifty states have receiving stolen property laws on the books, which can be applied in cases where a person is in criminal possession of stolen cultural property. The states also have “attempt” laws, which would cover a person’s attempt to possess stolen cultural property or possession of forged cultural property believed to be authentic. Beyond these statutes, the states maintain consumer protection laws with applicable penalties to guard against the appearance of fraudulent and stolen items in the marketplace. The states also have nonprofit enforcement statutes that may be applied to specific cultural institutions or boards of directors that acquire illegal art, archaeological finds, or ethnological artifacts.

Let’s hope so. But the same obstacle to state prosecutions exists for federal prosecutions as well. The trade makes it terribly difficult to gather sufficient evidence to establish wrongdoing in an anonymous trade. Bogdanos has been looking hard for a dodgy antiquities dealer to prosecute since the Baghdad museum looting. He has one now. But Weiss was duped by the under-regulated antiquities trade. Perhaps that notion will cause him to sit down to write his assignment with some real vigor (Peter, if you are reading, I’m happy to read a first draft). 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Speaking out about fakes

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110, Robert Motherwell 1971 

Jack Flam, currently working on a catalogue raisonné of Robert Motherwell talks about the backwards incentives by members of the public and scholars when it comes to authenticating art. Highly recommended, it puts all the discussion of fakes and forgeries in the context of what experts and the market are not doing to prevent fakes from polluting the pool of art in private collections and in the public trust:

These market circumstances have unfortunately coincided with a situation in which scholars and foundations that make decisions about authenticity feel increasingly constrained by legal threats from people who own or are selling fakes. So while the number of fakes in the marketplace is dramatically increasing, an important means for assuring the veracity of artists’ works has been disappearing. Several scholars and foundations are ceasing to authenticate works because they are afraid of lawsuits, and such fears have even constrained the way scholars communicate with each other.
Back in 2008, after the Motherwell catalogue raisonné project suspected that a number of “Spanish Elegy” paintings were forgeries, I had ample occasion to observe how pressure can be effectively put on scholars who believe a painting is inauthentic in order to constrain them from saying so publicly. When I contacted scholars who were engaged in research on some of the other artists whose works were supposed to be in Rosales’s collection, many declined to discuss their opinions about those works; and the ones who did so usually insisted on speaking off the record.
It was not until injured parties came forward—that is, people who had spent significant amounts of money on works that did not pass the scrutiny of either connoisseurship or forensic testing—and the press picked up the story that scholars became (cautiously) more open about what they thought of those works.

  1. Jack Flam, Break the silence over fakes, The Art Newspaper, April 12, 2012, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Break-the-silence-over-fakes/26124 .
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

"Maybe a Man’s Name Doesn’t Matter That Much"

 So says Orson Welles in this clip from F for Fake.  I couldn’t help but think of Welles and his film when reading Martin Gayford’s piece on the National Gallery in London’s new exhibition “Close Examination:  Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries”. 

Gaysford asks “whether works of art are really by the people or cultures that are supposed to have created them?”  The Exhibit at the National Gallery will examine these questions, with specific objects.  One object which the exhibit draws on is “The Faun” a fake Gauguin sculpture created by Shaun Greenhalgh which fooled the Art Institute in Chicago (and many others) for a number of years.   Gaysford notes that after Greenhalgh’s deception was discovered, we all thought very differently about the object, when in fact “this changed nothing.  The faun remains the same pointy-eared, hook-nosed fellow that he always was.”  Yet Gaysford notes:

The point of this story is not that art experts are foolish. In fact, the Faun is a very clever forgery. Its brilliance in part is that there actually was a Gauguin sculpture of a faun – it’s listed in an old inventory and may still exist in a cupboard somewhere. The lesson is that now we know it’s not a Gauguin, it ceases to be part of a larger whole: Gauguin’s art. At that point, even if it is still quite an attractive statuette, it loses an enormous amount of meaning. Discovering a work is a fake is like discovering a friend has been lying to you for years.

It is difficult to separate the object from the deception.  Even if the faun was a terrific work of aesthetic beauty, the fraud which spawned the forgery taints that beauty in our mind—we might even resent the object the better the “fake” really is.  That is not to say it cannot be a beautiful object, but it loses something by trying to trick us.

File:Escher's Relativity.jpg
Relativity, M.C. Escher, 1953

Artists play tricks all the time.  The works of M.C. Escher may be the most obvious examle of this.  But his deception is mathematical, and there for you to see—in a sense the job of the viewer is to try to figure out how he has done it.  Orson Welles was right to ask what’s in a man’s name, and right to point out that it may not matter that much.  But what does matter for something like the Faun and other forgeries is the lie told to the audience or the buyer.  Art forgers may be the creator of the work, but also those who attempt to pass off works they know or should know are forged on an unsuspecting public.

The bigger question is how many forgeries are exhibited in museums alongside the authentic works.  When buyers and sellers and museums are not careful about the history of an object (including antiquities) we might think of them as a kind of forger as well.  They may be unwitting, and fooled by a clever forger as the Art Institute of Chicago was, but when they value the object above everything, they risk becoming complicit in the forgery. 

  1. Martin Gayford, Art forgeries: does it matter if you can’t spot an original?, Telegraph.co.uk, June 17, 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/7824999/Art-forgeries-does-it-matter-if-you-cant-spot-an-original.html (last visited Jun 18, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com