Tuesday 18 September 2018

How to Spot Fake Roman Lamps

Figure 1
Inspired by a recent article on 'How to Spot Fake Cuneiform Tablets', I've decided to do the same for fake ancient lamps. Well no, that's actually a bit of a porky. The article on cuneiform tablets is quite long and I have no intention of trying to cram even a general introduction to spotting fake ancient lamps (history, motivation, case studies, manufacture, regional variation, analysis, repercussions and so on) into a mere blog post. I'll leave that for a chapter in the proverbial 'future book'. My post will be more in the nature of making a couple of very quick observations.

The finest fake lamps can be quite difficult to detect and to cover that end of the topic in the depth necessary would require a thesis rather than a blog post so I'll lower the tone and, without going into detail for fear of alerting fakers to amend their future products, simply confine most of my post to a few brief comments on some of the commonest duds (though, despite my title, not only those purporting to be 'Roman').

Although detecting fake Roman lamps is not always as easy as knowing the difference between a Roman gladiator and Robin Hood (Fig.1, top left), recognising a great deal of the rubbish churned out to flog to gullible tourists or eBay punters needs little more than common sense.

Army uniform

Figure 2

Lamps were produced in huge numbers in ancient times but, despite what some sellers would like you to believe, lamps that were made in different workshops in different areas at different periods were not all made from identical clay with identical colour and did not acquire identical patination. That observation applies to this sample of well-known fakes from the 'Syrian Series', offered, among a plethora of other spurious nonsense, by a notorious dealer in New York City (Fig.2, above).

Figure 3

The same applies to this selection of blatant fakes from the 'Bulgarian Volute Series', offered for prices ranging from $396 to $1,596 by an American dealer on both eBay and VCoins (Fig.3, above). Noting the huge variety of real Roman volute lamps (plus the plastic and factory types included here) is only a mouse-click away.

Sensing the dubious nature of a single presentation of lamps that all have almost identical fabric despite purporting to have different origins is of course child's play. The task becomes more difficult when, instead of being shown together, those same lamps enter circulation and are unwittingly mingled with authentic ones by inexperienced collectors or uninformed dealers. At least three of the lamps in this publicity shot for the sales catalogue of an upmarket business in Chicago (Fig.4, below) are also likely to be modern fakes from the 'Bulgarian Volute Series' but picking them out from the other items requires a sharper eye. While most products of that series should be clear enough, a few of them can be quite deceptive when isolated from their siblings and their detection may involve an analysis that is outside the cursory scope of my blog post.

Figure 4

Variations on a theme

Figure 5

The uniformity of the modern items mentioned in the previous section is probably due to their production in only one or two workshops in very recent times. The situation changes when a style of fake lamp has been made over a long period. Workshops alter their methods over time and, inspired by their success, other workshops copy the style, perhaps adding a few idiosyncrasies of their own to the basic design. The clay and finish then also begin to vary quite dramatically over the years, as can be seen in such hackneyed classics as the infamous 'Hathor Type' (Fig.5, above), a fantasy produced in vast quantities to dupe credulous tourists in Egypt since Victorian days.

Figure 6

Much like the Egyptian makers of the 'Hathor Type' with its enigmatic face, a few enterprising citizens of Tunisia have also long ago recognised the irrepressible urge of tourists to buy the improbable but exotic and have been busily fulfilling that demand with items from the 'La Marsa Group' since the 1950s. This group, likewise with a variety of clay, finish and detail, includes a lamp in the form of a head with no less than three nozzles, backed up by one depicting an archer and another displaying a disproportionately huge Christian symbol (Fig.6, above).

Far from putting tourists off, their childlike crudity, artificially time-worn condition and frequently dark and dirty surface are calculated to win over a species of clientele who very often fail to appreciate that real ancient lamps were largely intended for discerning adults and typically spent most of their existence sealed from the wear and grease of human handling by being buried underground.

Swimming with the tide

Figure 7

Never one to neglect an orphan merely because its origin is obscure, I feel another quirky lamp is due for consideration. The 'Dolphin Type' (Fig.7, above) appears to be based on genuine Hellenistic lamps found in Asia Minor but the feature of an offset handle is strikingly exaggerated into an obvious fishtail shape and its body often bloats out on the opposite side so that the whole thing resembles a classical dolphin. Differences in clay and finish suggest the type was made by different makers over a long period yet, contrary to the other variations normally found in such cases, the same crude pattern of slapdash ridges adorns the upper surface of every example encountered, almost as if the manufacturers were terrified of updating, modifying or refining the moulds for fear of making the product look too sophisticated and alienating a clientele who expected it to look primitive.

Although examples of this boldly unconventional type are very common on the commercial market, where their zoomorphic design appeals to buyers, I am not aware of any example from a documented archaeological excavation, their curiously arrested development beyond an endlessly repeated basic concept gives pause for thought, and I have long been doubtful of their authenticity. They share some aspects with the 'La Marsa Group' and I suspect they may be related. Like members of that family, lamps of the 'Dolphin Type' are a crudely executed exotic form circulating for many decades and show the consequent variations in clay, finish and detail that prolonged manufacture tends to entail but the fabric of some examples is remarkably similar to that of examples belonging to the Tunisian series (Fig.8, below).

Figure 8

Tunisia was a French colony for over seventy years, the French language is still widely spoken there and, with the exception of those from neighbouring countries, people from France form by far the largest number of foreign tourists today. Small wonder then that fakes from the 'La Marsa Group' crop up on the French market far more often than elsewhere in Europe. The fact that the same applies to lamps of the 'Dolphin Type' seems unlikely to be mere coincidence.

A touch of class

I'm nearing the limit for a blog post but in case any readers are complacent in the thought that spotting fake ancient lamps is simply a matter of avoiding those that come in identical batches and those in improbable styles, I'll end with an example of the better class I mentioned earlier. The lamp shown here (Fig.9, below) is an accurate style with a very convincing clay, finish and patination, a type that can easily fool many curators and dealers into accepting it as an ancient artefact from Imperial Rome.

Figure 9

The lamp is indeed Italian and it is indeed old - but not nearly as old as you might think. Closer examination reveals that it is a 19th-century fake belonging to the 'Naples Group', a series named after the city where they were made from about 1870 up to the First World War. Some of the most convincing fakes are those made many decades ago and the older they are, very often the more plausible they become. Time and time again I find undoubtedly old but nevertheless fake lamps proudly displayed in provincial museums or advertised in the catalogues of reputable dealers and auction houses. Thus, they can even acquire an impressive provenance over the years.

As to the gladiatorial scene shown on the discus: although an accurate copy of a genuine motif, it is always wise to be extra cautious with any lamp depicting gladiators or bawdy sex scenes. Lamps with those themes were produced in large numbers in ancient times since Romans apparently loved them but fakers are well aware that modern people love them too and pay high prices for them.

A pictorial summary of over 30 fake ancient lamps is included on my website. An example of one of the items shown in Figure 4 is listed as FB5.

A useful series of observations and case studies is also included on the website of a prominent ADA member.



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