Hang the Consequences--Museum Showcases Its Mistakes : Forgeries: Hoping to turn liabilities into assets, the British Museum is exhibiting fakes that fooled its experts.


A spurious 6th-Century sarcophagus was exposed only after someone noticed that it depicted a female figure wearing 19th-Century underwear.

And a bogus marble bust of Julius Caesar, long the most famous likeness of Caesar in Britain, turned out to have been "weathered" artificially, probably by someone pounding on it with a nail-studded piece of wood.

These are just two examples of the many instances over the last 250 years in which experts at Britain's oldest and largest museum have been hoodwinked by fakes. Now, in an admirable display of institutional humility--tempered with a well-honed sense of promotion--trustees of the British Museum hope to turn their liabilities into assets.

They have assembled what is reputed to be the most comprehensive exhibit ever of cultural fakery, and based it on their own mistakes. The exhibits range from 3,500-year-old monastic forgeries to such products of the $100-billion market for modern commercial imitations as counterfeit Cartier and Rolex watches.

"The lesson of this exhibition is that all museums, all collectors, if they collect aggressively and long enough, will eventually collect a fake," said Mark Jones, an assistant curator of coins and medals who spent three years organizing the exhibit.

"We are all emotionally involved with fakes," Sir David Wilson, the museum's director, said, but "nobody wishes to be associated with them."

He said they represent the point where "we as experts have bumped up against our own fallibility," which may also be the reason the general public finds fakes so fascinating.

The exhibit, "Fake? The Art of Deception," in a second-floor gallery of the museum, continues until Sept. 2. It deals not only with the frauds themselves but also with their authors and victims, the surprisingly varied motives behind them and techniques of both perpetration and detection.

It turns out, for example, that for all his creativity, Michelangelo was not above a bit of fakery. He forged the work of his teacher, Domenico Ghirlandaio, as a student prank. And he sculpted a sleeping Cupid which he is said to have sold fraudulently as an antiquity.

Among the victims of cultural fakery was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, enough the master of rational deduction to create the fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes, but so taken in by some famous trick photographs that he became convinced of the existence of fairies.

Therein lies one of the great lessons of the exhibit, organizer Jones pointed out. Even the most academically and intuitively gifted of individuals sometimes fall into the trap of believing what he wants to be true.

"Present Piltdown Man (a hoax) to a paleontologist out of the blue and it will be rejected out of hand," Jones said. "Present it to a paleontologist whose predictions about the 'missing link' have been awaiting just such evidence and it will seem entirely credible.

"Bring an exceptionally rare Athenian coin to a classical numismatist and he will examine it with careful skepticism. Allow one of the greatest of all classical numismatists, (the late) Sir George Hill, a director of the British Museum, to find such a coin for himself, mounted as a jewel around a lady's neck, and he will take its authenticity for granted."

The Royal Scottish Museum once rejected an obvious hoax brought from Canada, a trout covered with white fur, allegedly grown as protection against cold water. But the story had got out, and public demand to see the furry fish was so great that the museum put the fake on display.

Some of the most prolific early fakers were priests and monks, who concocted documentary "evidence" to prove land claims. The oldest fake in the exhibit is a Babylonian inscription on a stone monument, purporting to date from about 2300 BC but actually forged by monks around 1500 BC to establish the antiquity of the privileges and revenues of their temple.

"It has recently been estimated that the great monastic houses of England were so busy forging writs in the century after the Norman Conquest (of 1066) that over half the surviving charters of Edward the Confessor may be spurious," Jones said.

In World War II, Germany distributed forged British bank notes in the hope of crippling the British economy, and forged British newspaper articles on the state of the Royal Air Force in the hope of crippling British morale.

Decades of Communist rule in the Soviet Union and East Europe created a vast collection of doctored photographs in which figures were either added or eliminated, depending on the goal of historical revisionism at the time.

Most people who buy fake Chanel perfume or fraudulent Dior accessories know what they are getting but are "buying an illusion," Jones said, "the illusion of status, of belonging, of success, conferred by the fraudulent reproduction of a famous name."

Once unmasked, forgeries in the world of art and antiquities are usually considered valueless or, worse, an embarrassment. But not always. Giovanni da Cavino of Padua and his son produced such masterful replicas of ancient coins in the 16th Century that some of their fakes are now worth as much as or more than the originals, Jones said.

The late Tom Keating is considered the most prolific and versatile art forger to be exposed in Britain in this century. He produced about 2,000 fakes of the work of more than 100 different artists, including Samuel Palmer. Exposed in 1976, he became a popular hero who won a television award for a series of art lectures. A posthumous sale of his work realized about $400,000, several times the estimated value.

The "Golden Age" of fakery was the 19th Century, Jones said. Collecting relics spread from a relative handful of aristocrats and scholars to broader social classes. And there was a large number of skilled craftsmen capable of producing relics on demand.

By the 1930s, the craftsmen were mostly gone and "the great age of faking was over," Jones said. Improved methods of detecting fakes and harsher penalties for the fakers also helped.

A quick stroll through Jerusalem's Old City, where vendors offer tourists phony antiquities including "Roman" coins, will make it clear that fakery is not dead. But generally, according to Jones, modern fakes lack the "exuberance and the quality of those made in the 19th Century."

Meanwhile, public institutions like the British Museum tend to be philosophical about their own collecting blunders, at least about the older ones, such as the spurious sarcophagus and the bogus bust of Caesar. "Nobody can be really embarrassed by something that happened more than a century ago," Jones said.

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