A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A five-year investigation reveals that most West African terra-cotta sculptures are fakes that have fooled specialists, sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and ended up in some of the world's most prestigious museums.
On Wednesday, November 20, 1991, Sotheby's New York auctioned the Kuhn collection of African objects. On the cover of the auction catalog was the collection's masterpiece, a West African terra-cotta ram. Since thermoluminescence (TL) tests--a primary means of authentication--had indicated the figure was between 570 and 1,000 years old, there was no suspicion about the piece's age. A little before noon, the animal was sold for $275,000. The Kuhn ram has not been the object of much discussion in the years since the sale, except in Mali, its country of origin. There, rumors have it the piece may have been faked.
Since the 1980s, nearly 80 percent of the allegedly antique terra cottas that have left Mali have been counterfeit. Prized by collectors, Malian terra cottas have been looted from hundreds of archaeological sites on the middle Niger River. As these pieces have become increasingly scarce, Malian antiquities dealers have sought faked pieces from local potters. The resulting trade has seriously corrupted the art historical record: in most cases it is now simply impossible to tell if terra cottas published in scholarly works on West African art are genuine.
One day in 1995, while investigating a story on West African cultural heritage, I saw a terra-cotta animal leg, remarkably similar to those of the ram sold in 1991, in the backyard of a Bamako antiquities dealer's house. I had a sudden and inexplicable feeling--born of years of staring at these objects--that this leg had been fashioned by the same hand that had made the Kuhn ram. I decided to find out whether my intuition was correct.
Once I heard Amadou's story, I hurried to Dary, 450 miles northeast of Bamako, to find out if the villagers' version corresponded with the forger's. The village has a population of about 200. There are no roads leading to it, and three months out of the year when the Niger River overflows there is no overland access at all. There are no phones here, no electricity, and no running water.
When shown Amadou's photos of the intact pieces that had emerged from the site, Denba Traore, the village chief, quickly grasped that I knew what had gone on there nine years before. For several hours I sought information from people in various parts of the village. Those who had taken part in the digging confirmed Amadou's story, corroborating the names of the antiquities dealers involved in the digging, the time they spent at the site, the number of intact pieces recovered, and how the pieces were transported out of the bush in jute bags on a donkey cart. They also provided details concerning the authentic fragment of the Kuhn ram (its findspot and the depth at which it was buried) as well as the stomach of the Pregnant Ewe at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Everything checked out; Amadou had told me the truth.
Another factor favored the spread of fakes: publication during the 1980s of monographs, art books, and auction house sale catalogs devoted to West African terra cottas. Seyni M. Karabenta of Kourikoulo told me that once catalog photos of African terra cottas started appearing in Mali, he began producing nearly 100 fakes annually. In fact, he made so many forgeries over a 15-year period that insiders started calling his fakes "Karabentos." Mobo Maiga, one of the two major Djenné dealers, confirmed that each time an authentic local piece was brought to him, he hired local sculptors to make several copies. Forgers no longer had to wait until new looted pieces emerged to copy them--they just worked directly from photos. Faking was simpler this way and the range of objects to copy wider. According to the forgers, to whom I showed a fair number of art books such as Bernard de Grunne's Ancient Terra-cottas from West Africa and catalogs including that of the Menil Collection in the United States, the most important published African terra cottas have been copied several times, and the copies sold as ancient.
Today, West African forgers are counterfeiting Nok and Ife statues from Nigeria and Benin in response to trends in collecting. There's no question that some African forgers are geniuses at what they do. Malian and Nigerian dealers have often told me how difficult it can be to distinguish fake from genuine when terra cottas arrive at their doorsteps. If those in the trade have such doubts, the deck is obviously stacked against their clients. Furthermore, West African terra cottas represent a relatively new market. It was only at the end of the 1960s that European collectors first started buying these pieces. The very "newness" of the art leaves the door wide open for forgeries. And a new class of collectors, less knowledgable than their predecessors, has now emerged who view authentic African art as a good financial investment. African dealers have now installed themselves in the United States, a huge market with potentially limitless profits. American buyers are considerably less careful than their European counterparts in distinguishing authentic from fake.
Also regrettable is the obsession among Western collectors with ancientness; white dealers who sell to them often disdain works of art younger than 100 years old, even when copies of wooden effigies made in Malian villages earlier in the twentieth century are sometimes better executed and more beautiful than the originals. Contemporary African art is flourishing, with Zimbabwean sculptors and Congolese bronze sculptors showing the way. While some forgers have created lucrative businesses selling their own wares, many more like Amadou are waiting for the time when they can step out of the shadows and own up to their considerable skills as legitimate creative artists.
A former regular contributor to the Belgian news magazine Le Vif-L'Express, Michel Brent has for the past eight years focused on cultural heritage issues in West Africa.