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Conversations: Hunting Fakes Volume 58 Number 1, January/February 2005

A Smithsonian sleuth says counterfeits lurk in museum collections the world over.

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(© Smithsonian Institution, photo by James DiLoreto)

Jane Walsh, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, is best known for her work with museum collections and for exposing several crystal skulls, once thought to be Precolumbian, as nineteenth-century German fakes. She is now working with several museums to create a database that can be used to identify bogus Precolumbian jade, crystal, and other stone artifacts. She talked to ARCHAEOLOGY about why you shouldn't always trust what you see at museums.

Can you say how many fakes are in any one museum's collection?
Well, no. But what I can tell you is any museum--I don't care what museum it is--has fakes, because fakes are ubiquitous. I have a friend who works at the Holocaust Museum as a conservator, and even they have forgeries--Star of David badges and prison uniforms that were made for Hollywood films and later sold by dealers as authentic artifacts.

How did counterfeit Precolumbian jade, crystal, and other stone artifacts become so prevalent in museum collections?
Museums all over the world began collecting Precolumbian stone carvings in the 1820s just after Mexican independence, when the country was first opened again to foreigners. They created a demand, and there probably wasn't a supply to satisfy that demand. So local artisans, or maybe some Europeans, started creating the supply. In the beginning, people were unknowingly collecting the fakes because they didn't know what the things were supposed to look like.

It seems likely that some forgeries must have made it into serious scholarly research.
There are a number of very famous pieces that I wonder about, and people have published on them for a century. And there are plenty of pieces that are completely anomalous--that don't look like anything else that anyone has ever dug up--that have made it into scholars' papers. Those publications are always filled with complicated explanations of why the objects don't look like anything else. I think there may be an easier answer. I'm not saying they're all fakes. I'm saying this project may offer the opportunity to make sure they're not.

Is that what interests you most about looking for fakes?
It's not just that I want to say, "Oh, that's fake!" It comes out of my interest in collections and what they say about us as much as what they say about the people we think made the objects. Fakes are sort of creatures of their time. A lot of them were made in the nineteenth century, which was a very inventive age--people had absolutely no compunction about taking something that was 500 years old and changing it to make it look "better."

How will you use the stone artifacts from the Smithsonian, the British Museum, and Mexico's Templo Mayor Museum to identify fakes?
We want to create a database with documented artifacts from archaeological contexts that we can use to make comparisons with artifacts in question. Basically, we'll subject objects to various analyses using silicone impressions, scanning electron microscopes, CAT scans, and x-ray fluorescence.

Do you worry that the results of your work may tip off the forgers?
It will get to them. I know it will. Someone 50 years from now will have to figure out what they figured out. But by then, this technology that I'm using is going to look like what they used in the nineteenth century. People will be able to zap a laser beam at an object and tell immediately that it's from 1963.

How do you think museums will react to your work?
Some people in my department say, "Oh, you are going to be deluged by people who want you to come and take a look at their stuff." That's not my fear. My fear is that I'm going to be locked out of collections because people will be afraid that I'll say their favorite object is a fake.
   I'm already sort of dealing with that at the moment. I can't really talk about it, but I have to say I was surprised. To me it just seems like the most obvious thing in the world to do is research your collection. Otherwise it's kind of like having a library where you won't let people take the books down because they look so nice, stacked up all evenly. Collections really are like libraries. The objects are like books and you have to open them up to learn anything. You can't just admire them through glass cases.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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