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Talking About Fakes March 2, 2004
Kenneth D.S. Lapatin (Impy Productions)

In his article "Snake Goddeses, Fake Godesses" (January/February 2001), Kenneth D.S. Lapatin recounted how, in late May 1903, Arthur Evans discovered two large rectangular stone-lined cists at the Minoan site of Knossos on Crete. Most striking of the artifacts he found within were the remains of faience statuettes depicting female snake handlers, which Evans considered to be goddesses and priestesses. These extraordinary finds, however, soon gave rise to a number of fakes. Lapatin's book on the subject, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History (2002), has now appeared in paperback form (Da Capo Press, $16.95). ARCHAEOLOGY's executive editor, Mark Rose, recently spoke to Lapatin, now assistant curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, about the book and the subject of fakes in general.

What has been the reaction to the article and the book? Very positive on the whole, although some museum officials understandably wish I hadn't pursued this topic and that it would just go away. Most curators, however, welcome further knowledge about objects in their care, even if they turn out to date to the late second millennium A.D. rather than mid-second millennium B.C. The public reaction, meanwhile, has been tremendous. One wonderful byproduct is that after reading my book the owner of a Snake Goddess forgery that I only knew from 50-year-old photographs contacted me and brought this piece back out into the open, and another, bronze, Snake Goddess forgery, has also come to light. These statuettes offer material for further study of the style and techniques of the forgers--and support make my point that fakes should not be hidden away, but rather need to be made known. Publicizing some can bring to light others and this can further scholars' work.

Mysteries of the Snake Goddess.html

How do these early "Minoan" forgeries fit into the history of forgery in the broader sense? How do they rate among the earliest and most notorious? Although they purport to be quite early, from the middle of the second millennium B.C., these statues are quite late. Most of them date from the teens and twenties of the last century. They are really newcomers to the world of forgery. The earliest fake known to me is a second-millennium B.C. cuneiform inscription purporting to be a third-millennium B.C. original that ascribes ancestral privileges to Babylonian temple priests. It is now in the British Museum. The most notorious, on the other hand, is probably the Piltdown Man Hoax of the early twentieth century, which for many years was accepted as the missing link between man and the apes. More recent are the salted prehistoric "finds" of archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura, which purported to push back Japanese prehistory by tens of thousands of years. The "Minoan" forgeries differ from these in that they sold for a lot of money and helped to shape our view of a newly discovered ancient civilization. For in the early twentieth century the Minoans were all the rage. Arthur Evans seemed to have discovered the history underlying Greek myths and to have unearthed the earliest high civilization of Europe (in contrast to those of ancient Egypt and the Near East). The Snake Goddess was one of its most popular images. In all of these cases, however, the forgeries were successful, at least temporarily, because the perpetrators recognized a market for their wares: they produced what people wanted.

What are the other underlying conditions necessary for forgery? In addition to desire on the part of buyers, without which nothing would be possible, new discoveries that increase excitement and create new markets are certainly factors. Moreover, when entire cultures or periods gain popularity, the relative lack of expertise, even among specialists, makes forgeries more difficult to detect. Hence, for example, their prevalence today in African and Precolumbian art. In many cases the forgers also have inside knowledge: access to archaeological sites or unpublished material. Other important factors are fashion, whether it be encouraged by popular trends or blockbuster museum exhibitions; and, always, the lure of the unique "masterpiece." Of course, skill on the part of the forgers is important, too. For that reason, quality is not proof of authenticity.

What is the impact of forgeries? Who are the victims and what is the damage? I think that one reason forgery stories are so much fun is that no one seems to be really hurt. The immediate victims are the rich--public institutions and private collectors--not to mention the experts who are fooled. And who doesn't like seeing them get their comeuppance? In fact, in most forgery stories it is the forger, rather than the "detective" who eventually does the unmasking, who is cast as the hero. But the truth is that when forgeries go unnoticed we are all victims. When a modern object is taken to be a historical artifact, the past is misrepresented, and hence it is likely to be misunderstood. And because successful forgeries are successful to the degree that they appeal to our modern ideas and ideals about the past, forgeries can contribute significantly to our tendency to re-create the past in the manner most attractive to our modern needs and desires. For that reason I think that when forgeries are recognized and exposed it is important and valuable not to bury--or worse, to destroy--them simply because they are fake and potentially embarrassing, but rather to study and display them so as to employ them as examples of how we are constantly refashioning the past as part of the historical enterprise. They are also useful for the training of students.

How can we put a stop to forgery? That's a tough one. Forgery is closely linked to looting and it operates by many of the same mechanisms: the true origins of the object are necessarily erased, and fakes, like looted artifacts, often come on the art market with a false provenance. In my view, the only effective way to stop forgery, like looting, is not to try to cut off production, but rather to starve it, that is to say, to change the behavior, the desire, of consumers. But unlike the damage done by looters, that done by forgers is not irrevocable. A lost archaeological context can never be recovered, but a false antiquity can be removed from the corpus of genuine material. The damage can be undone. In fact, in some cases one might argue that the production of forgeries can actually protect buried artifacts from looters, satisfying the desires of a ravenous market. But that, perhaps, is an over-optimistic view of the value of fakes.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America