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History is rewritten when archaeologist Wolfgang Helbig teams up with a forger


The inscription, likely forged by Helbig, on the Praenetse fibula

At a meeting of the German Institute in Rome on January 7, 1886, Wolfgang Helbig described an engraved gold fibula or dress pin found at Palestrina, ancient Praeneste, in 1871. Helbig had a good reputation in the archaeological community and had been second secretary (assistant director) of the Institute since 1865, so there was no reason to doubt his account or the fibula's authenticity.

About 4.5 inches long, the fibula was not unique, but its Latin inscription was. The text was mundane, reading "Manios has made me [or, had me made] for Numasios." However, the use of the characters FH for the sound F made it linguistically earlier than any other known Latin inscription. Helbig dated it to the 6th century B.C., the date then given to the Barberini and Bernardini tombs at Palestrina. Known as the Manios or Praeneste fibula, it remained a chronological benchmark for study of the development of Latin for nearly a century.

But Helbig hadn't told the Institute audience all he knew. He said a friend owned it, and that friend was Francesco Martinetti, a seller of antiquities, faker, and smuggler. And there were signs that something was wrong with Helbig's tale. The fibula was later said to be from the Bernardini Tomb, which was excavated in 1876. That contradicted Helbig's story, but he didn't challenge it. The few who raised questions about the fibula, such as archaeologist Giovanni Pinza in 1905, were ignored. Helbig said it was genuine and if the exact circumstances of its discovery were murky, so what.


Books by Wolfgang Helbig, a scholar gone bad over a century ago, are still in print today

Though he was intellectually gifted, Helbig's personality did not impress everybody. Archaeologist Otto Jahn had thought him lacking in self-discipline, and the great classicist Theodor Mommsen said he was "a lightheaded fly" and a "loafer." In fact, things were worse, and the real story of Helbig and the Praeneste fibula is one about "the world of the salon, of the collector, of the rich and famous, of the dealer, of the masterpiece and the fraud" (Holloway 1994).

A comprehensive study by Margherita Guarducci in 1980 showed that suspicions about the fibula were well founded. In La cosiddetta Fibula Prenestina. Antiquari, eruditi e falsari nella Roman dell' Ottocento, Guarducci, a University of Rome Greco-Latin epigraphist, pointed out that the inscription was rather poorly executed, compared to genuine ones, as though engraved by an amateur. She noted how, compared to ancient gold, which can be brittle, the fibula could bend quite easily. Chemical analysis showed that the gold was unlike specimens known to be from Palestrina. Finally, examination of the inscribed area showed that the surface had been treated with acid to look old. Guarducci knew of Helbig's involvement with Martinetti, who could have made the fibula, basing it on real ones from Palestrina. But analysis shows the inscription matches Helbig's handwriting.

Why would Helbig, with his reputation and position, do this? Perhaps the ambitious scholar thought a brilliant "discovery" would aid him in being appointed head of the Institute. Indeed, shortly after Helbig presented the fibula, the first secretary (director) Wilhelm Henzen died. Helbig was made acting director, but did such a poor job that he was sacked, leaving October 1, 1887. Helbig then began what has been called a Jekyll and Hyde existence (Gordon 1982):

On the one hand, the life of a much respected scholar, much honored by the Italians and the French; on the other...[an] unscrupulous businessman, who with his collaborator Martinetti made a fortune out of illegal, fraudulent activities--illegal in acquiring antiques as well as in getting them transported out of Italy by bribery, not to mention the fraud involved in embellishing genuine antiques to get higher prices and in creating fake antiques.

Helbig's contemporary philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz Moellendorf described him as "swimming in the thick of society, well known to both the Roman and Piedmontese aristocracy, to the connoisseurs of art and to dealers."

Martinetti's motive for selling fakes and smuggling was money. Like Helbig, he made a fortune, much of which he hid in his home. Caches of valuables--ancient and modern gold coins, and ancient gems--were found when it was torn down after his death. But why did Helbig, married to a wealthy Russian princess, need to sell forgeries?

With the fibula, self-advancement seems likely. Tom Hoving, who devotes an entire chapter to Helbig in False Impressions (1996), attributes the faking simply to needing more cash to support a lavish lifestyle. In his review of Bachelors of Art: Edward Perry Warren & the Lewes House Brotherhood (1992), William Calder speculates about Helbig's "frequent appearance" in Warren's circle. Born into a wealthy Massachusetts family, Warren lived in Oxford with his partner John Marshall at Lewes House, "where women were not welcomed." A collector, Warren also purchased for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where his brother chaired the board. The authenticity of number of antiquities he bought is now doubted. Calder speculates that paying blackmail, perhaps to hide sexual indiscretions, was a reason Helbig dealt in forgeries.

The Helbig-Martinetti collaboration continued until the latter's death in 1895, and then some (Gordon: 1982). When Martinetti was dying, Helbig went to his warehouse and took a statue of a youth, supposedly an ancient copy of a masterpiece by the Greek sculptor Polykleitos. He sold it to Carl Jacobsen, the Danish brewer and founder of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. The next year it was exposed as a fake (its "patina" washed off). The "Boston Throne" may be a genuine ancient marble relief or may be another Helbig-Martinetti fake, possibly carved in Rome in the early 1890s. Warren bought it for the Museum of Fine Arts from Helbig in 1896.

For nearly a century, the Praeneste fibula was seen as a key artifact. Now it has been revealed not as an ancient piece, made for or by Manios, but as a modern testament to self-promotion and an unholy alliance of scholarship and fraud, made for and by Helbig. It shows that artifacts with no documented findspot must be treated skeptically, no matter who presents them. Even great scholars can be wrong, misled, or, sometimes, go bad.