Thursday 24 August 2017

Ancient Egyptian antiquity: real or fake?

A member of an online antiquities forum recently posted images of a bust that had just appeared on the market (see Update below). It seemed to be Ancient Egyptian. The seller of the artefact gave the usual story: old estate, in the family since about the 1920s, no details known. In other words, it had zero real provenance. But the bust itself did look convincingly authentic. Was it real?

Some members of the forum noted a similarity to the famous Nefertiti bust in Berlin. Was it contemporary?

Well, the bust does have an Amarna look ... but it is neither Nefertiti nor even female. I noticed it bore a startling resemblance to another bust at the Neues Museum in Berlin, that of a young pharaoh (perhaps Smenkhkare, Akhenaton or Tutankhamun) and registered as Ident.Nr. ÄM 20496.

In fact, the resemblance was rather too close. The breakage and fractures on the right side of the subject's face and neck (left side of the image) of the bust on the market were an uncanny match to those on the bust in Berlin. It was a little too coincidental and it was glaringly obvious that the bust on the market was a fake copy.

Taken in isolation, the market bust looks remarkably convincing. But of course the lack of real provenance was an immediate warning. Not only from a legal or ethical point of view. It is extremely unlikely that an artefact of that significance would not have been recorded and documented somewhere at some time.

Caveat emptor!

-- UPDATE --

I have now tracked the item down. It is being sold by Thomaston Place Auction Galleries of Maine, USA, on an online auction website and bidding is due to end on 26 August 2017.

Auction description:
Head of Amun, New Kingdom, post-Amarna Period, Dynasty 18, reign of Tutankhamen, ca. 1336–1327 B.C. (in our opinion). Probably from Upper Egypt, Thebes. Sandstone with remnants of pigment, having refined features, portion of flat top cap and indication of beard, now missing. The features resemble those of Tutankhamen, indicate this was probably his commission, as part of the reconstruction of the temples. 8 1/2" tall. Loss to nose, scratches and chips, nice age patina.


The item is now shown as having sold for $15,000.

Friday 18 August 2017

The trauma of authenticating antiquities

"Roman Ring" (Stage One reject)
"How can you possibly tell it's fake just from a photograph? It needs to be handled in person under magnification!"

I hear that protest from inexperienced buyers of antiques and antiquities all the time. They may have seen paintings being minutely examined under microscopes and X-rays by experts in a TV programme but they fail to realise that these procedures are advanced steps in a progressive process.

Regardless of whether an old man-made object is a painting, an antique, an antiquity or anything else, the process of determining if it is authentic or not (i.e. if it is actually what it seems or purports to be) follows a graduated path.

For the purpose of this blog post we'll focus on antiquities. As with paintings and other collectable items, an artefact's provenance (history of ownership) can play a vital part in helping to establish its legitimacy - in both the authentic and legal sense - but here we'll leave that aside and concentrate on the object itself.

Authentication Stages
There are at least three basic stages in the expert authentication of an antiquity.
Stage One: Visual check.
This initial stage can be conducted simply from an image (or series of images) of the object. The object can be identified and an assessment made of whether it is potentially an authentic example of its type. The majority of extraneous objects such as fantasy pieces with no ancient counterpart, obvious fakes, reproductions and other irrelevant distractions can be readily weeded out at this stage with no further action necessary. 
Stage Two: Physical examination.
If the object has passed Stage One (potentially an authentic example of its type), it then progresses to a physical examination. Ideally, this involves a meticulous analysis aided by any basic tools that may be appropriate, including magnification, lighting devices, scales, swabs, solvents, etc. Characteristics such as style, artistic details, epigraphy, construction, manufacture, fabric, patination and so on are closely compared with parallels (both those documented as genuine and those documented as forgeries). Any former repairs, alterations or restorations are detected. 
Stage Three: Scientific analysis.
If the results of the physical examination in Stage Two are inconclusive or need to be verified, the object may then be subjected to scientific analysis such as metal testing, thermoluminescence (TL) dating, radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology or whatever method may be applicable in order to gather more evidence.
What many people fail to understand when they are incredulous that an object can be condemned without going through Stage Two or Stage Three is that the object has already fallen at the first hurdle and failed Stage One. Too often, they are under the delusion that since they cannot tell if the object is fake from only an image, no one else can either.

I did say 'expert authentication'. Expertise varies. New collectors frequently regard institutions such as museums or major auction houses as infallible oracles whose pronouncements can be treated as gospel. But it should be borne in mind that no matter how prestigious the institution, the opinion given is only as good as the individual giving it. While people employed by major institutions are typically screened, possess impressive academic qualifications and may have enormous knowledge in their own field, their competence in gauging objects that are less familiar to them may fall far below that of a small dealer or collector who specialises in objects of that type.

By 'expertise' I mean not only a deep knowledge of the type of object being reviewed, it also entails a huge degree of experience in handling both genuine and false examples of them. Even someone with that background can make mistakes of course - hence the frequent need for subsequent stages before venturing an informed opinion - but more obvious fakes can be confidently rejected by merely glancing at an image of them during the first stage.

Broad Categories
Objects that are offered as antiquities fall into four broad categories.
1) An object (complete, fragmentary or repaired) that is certainly ancient in its entirety. 
2) An object that is obviously modern in its entirety. 
3) A 'restored', 'enhanced', 'married' or altered object that is certainly ancient in part and obviously modern in part but in which the borders are clear. The judgement of such an object is clearly subjective but factors such as the degree of modern material or treatment and the extent to which the original integrity has been affected are taken into account. 
4) An object that does not fit into the previous classifications due to uncertainty. This vast category requires at least Stage Two of the authentication process in order to reach a worthwhile conclusion. And in many cases doubt may still remain.
It is typically the objects in the second category that fail Stage One. It may also be wise to avoid many objects in the fourth category. The judgement of those in the third category is largely based on a consideration of intent and degree. While honest restoration may be perfectly acceptable, substantial alteration can be classed as a form of fakery. An ancient papyrus with a purely modern inscription, for instance, is undoubtedly regarded as fake.

Sometimes, an owner's refusal to acknowledge that their object is not what they want it to be is passionate and my own diplomacy in dealing with that situation was nurtured by bitter experience. I had to authenticate items brought in by members of the public when I worked at an auction house - and their reaction could be unpredictable if I had to inform them that the item was a fake or reproduction. It could be particularly hazardous when conversing face-to-face. Some would merely go into a stony state of denial and tell me how stupid I was while a few owners would launch into a plethora of expletives and threaten me as they slammed the door on their way out.

None of us is fond of anything that may shatter our dream - and it is often wise to seek more than one opinion - but it needs to be realised that a huge proportion of objects purporting to be antiquities are so outrageously fake to anyone familiar with the real thing that they can be condemned outright - even from only an image. In those cases it's not the object that needs to be handled, it's the truth.



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