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Researchers Karen Bruhns and Nancy Kelker

ArtiFact or ArtiFake? - The problem of forgeries in Mesoamerican Art

We are most grateful to Dr. Karen Olsen Bruhns and Dr. Nancy L. Kelker for this eye-opening article on the widespread problem of faked pre-Columbian objects in major museums around the world. Dr. Bruhns is Director of the Cihuatán/Las Marías Archaeological Project for the Fundación Nacional de Arqueología de El Salvador (FUNDAR). Dr. Kelker is Professor of Art History at Middle Tennessee State University. In 2009 they co-authored Faking Ancient Mesoamerica.

Pic 1: ‘Faking Ancient Mesoamerica’ by Kelker and Bruhns
Pic 1: ‘Faking Ancient Mesoamerica’ by Kelker and Bruhns (Click on image to enlarge)

Worldwide art and antiquities forgery is big business, yet despite periodic exposés of the more dramatic forgery rings such as that of the Bolton forgers or of individual high ticket fakes, such as the Chicago Art Institute’s faux Gauguin faun, the forgery business continues unabated. It will continue to do so just as long as there are covetous collectors who believe themselves incapable of being fooled or who have been convinced by their dealers that forgery isn’t a problem. This is especially true if the desired item has acquired a provenance dating prior to the magical year of 1970, before which, for some daft reason (pecuniary?) the art-dealing world claims forgeries were few and far between.

In the New World this assumption is especially problematic, as the earliest Precolumbian fakes and near-fakes known date back to the period of the Spanish Conquest. The dealing and collection world’s rosy view of the forgery problem is that only about 40% of any collection is potentially fraudulent. Based on our own observations and analysis of museum collection donations to which we have had access, as well as auction listings, we estimate that at this moment, a conservative estimate of the percentage of forgeries on sale or bought (and ultimately donated) within, say, the past 30 to 50 years, is about 85% and growing exponentially. Entire auctions at prestigious houses and galleries and museum exhibitions often push the 100% forgery mark.

Pic 2: Early 20th century photo of Leopoldo Batres, Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City
Pic 2: Early 20th century photo of Leopoldo Batres, Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Forgery of Precolumbian art really got going in the 1820s when Latin American countries overthrew Spanish rule and started participating in the modern world. Foreign investment in these countries brought resident foreigners, many of whom acquired local antiquities. These enthusiastic, if naïve, collectors formed an instant and lucrative market for innovative local artists. Ultimately, their collections found their way into museums around the world. Some of the most beloved and finest museum pieces date to this period. Although some have been considered questionable for decades and some have been determined to be inauthentic, many continue to remain on view because they are popular with the public. This is not surprising, as their artisans designed them to appeal to western taste. We should not make the mistake of assuming, as Leopoldo Batres, the author of the first book on Mexican forgeries, published in 1909, did that all forgers are ignorant and base people only capable of producing the crudest of pieces. As is the case with good business people everywhere, they know their market.

The staying power of early and even more recent fakes can best be illustrated with a few examples: the British Museum Xipe Masks, the Mexico Museum of Anthropology Olmec Wrestler, the British Museum Aztec Crystal Skull and the Rio Pesquero (various collections) stone masks and other jade doodads.

Pic 3: The British Museum Xipe Totec masks © The Trustees of the British Museum
Pic 3: The British Museum Xipe Totec masks © The Trustees of the British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Xipe Totec Our Lord the Flayed One
Although The British Museum Xipe masks were thoroughly debunked by Esther Pasztory in the late 1970s, the museum’s current web site blithely presents them as genuine. In the museum world there is no beautiful artifact so false that, given a few years’ cooling off period, it cannot be made “true” again. Turning this sentence around would make it clearer. “In the museum world, the collective memory of the general public and scholarly community is apparently believed to be equivalent to the lifespan of a gnat.”

Pic 4: ‘The inside and outside of an Aztec mask’ in Henry Christy’s collection, from ‘Anahuac’ by Edward Tylor (1861), p. 227
Pic 4: ‘The inside and outside of an Aztec mask’ in Henry Christy’s collection, from ‘Anahuac’ by Edward Tylor (1861), p. 227 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Xipe masks are definitely in the upper echelon of forgeries. The maker of these masks was, for his time, very knowledgeable about motifs in Aztec art, and he seems to have borrowed elements from other works, such as the heavy, closed eyes of Coyolxauhqui, along with her large ear spools and striated hair. The fatal flaw in these works is to be found on the inside of the masks. Represented in bas relief are four-armed figures similar to those found in Hindu art. The Aztecs did not depict their deities as multi-armed. Pasztory suggests that this peculiar element may have been inspired by the illustrations of Isidro Gondra in William Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico. Gondra’s drawings were heavily influenced by his knowledge of a great many other ancient art styles: Hindu, Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek (Gondra, 1844-46).

That these masks are once again presented as authentic is a tremendous problem. Museums and their curators do not want to admit that they were fooled or that a beautiful piece is modern. Forgeries often have far more appeal than genuinely ancient pieces, simply because the artist knows his time and culture and he can make pieces that fit the current view of what “native” art ought to be.

Pic 5: B/W triptych of the ‘Olmec Wrestler’
Pic 5: B/W triptych of the ‘Olmec Wrestler’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The “Olmec Wrestler” ***
Even more beloved than the Xipe Masks is the so-called Olmec Wrestler, a three-quarter life-sized basalt sculpture of a seated man wearing only a loincloth that is the star of the Mexico City Museum of Anthropology. Since its purchase by the museum in 1964, a lot of ink has been spilt by scholars attempting to rationalize the eccentricities of this beautifully carved piece. But no amount of hyperbole can excuse the very real fact that the work is consistent with a western canon of art rather than with an Olmec one. The piece exhibits several eccentric characteristics pointing to its maker’s familiarity with western art, including a Renaissance ratio of proportion, Classical anatomical detail, and contrappostal movement. There are also several characteristics that illustrate the artist’s unfamiliarity with Olmec monumental art, such as an incorrect loincloth, bare head, ear lobes drilled rather than carved with ear spools, and use of the wrong type of stone. Despite all of this and more, the Wrestler is passionately supported by those who see in it what they want Precolumbian art to be. This is an enormous problem because the picture of Mesoamerican history presented by such works is a false one that distorts, and thus retards, our understanding of that history.

Pic 6: The British Museum crystal skull
Pic 6: The British Museum crystal skull (Click on image to enlarge)

The British Museum Crystal Skull
This piece is so well-known that it warranted a role in the latest Indiana Jones movie. However, recognition by the Hollywood fantasy machine does not make it real or Indiana Jones an archaeologist. Still, the provenance of the British Museum crystal skull is a work of fiction worthy of the cinema industry. Supposedly brought to Europe by a “Spanish officer” sometime before the French invasion of Mexico, the skull was sold to an English collector and then to M. Eugène Boban, a well-known French antiquities dealer (Riviale 2001). Boban, in turn, sold the skull to Tiffany and Company, who sold it to the British Museum.

Over the years, there have been rumblings in the scholarly community about the authenticity of the crystal skull. By 1967 the roar had become so loud that the British Museum had the skull investigated by its Research Laboratory, which examined both the base material and the fabrication of the piece.

Pic 7: To their credit, the British Museum now state on their gallery description that the crystal skull is probably a fake...
Pic 7: To their credit, the British Museum now state on their gallery description that the crystal skull is probably a fake... (Click on image to enlarge)

The skull was determined to be made of Brazilian rock crystal (Jones 1990, 296-97), although a recent analysis suggests that the crystal may be from Madagascar (Sax et al 2008); neither of these sources was exploited by the ancient Mesoamericans. Next, the British Museum Research Laboratory concluded that the lines of the teeth were cut by a jewelers’ wheel, not by string sawing as the Aztecs would have done. This, too, was recently confirmed again with more modern equipment by Sax and his colleagues.

The piece is also inconsistent with the canon of Aztec art in that it is too anatomically detailed and western in appearance. Depictions of skulls in Aztec art are blocky and highly stylized with the facial bones compressed into a moon-shaped disk, the mandible rotated forward to create a u-shaped element. The nasal opening is triangular, the eyeballs retained in the sockets, and the teeth are set into the upper and lower jaws with a scalloped contour line.

Pic 8: ‘Mask, Veracruz? Olmec, Mexico, middle formative period (900-600BC), Robert and LIsa Sainsbury Collection, University of East Anglia’
Pic 8: ‘Mask, Veracruz? Olmec, Mexico, middle formative period (900-600BC), Robert and LIsa Sainsbury Collection, University of East Anglia’  (Click on image to enlarge)

The Rio Pesquero Masks
The discovery of the Rio (or Arroyo) Pesquero masks in southern Veracruz in 1969 appears to be another example of cinematic inspiration. According to the story told by a prominent collector who happened to be the audience for the performance, the masks were discovered by some simple fishermen who waded out into the river to get into their canoes – the wrong way. They stepped on something hard in the muddy river bottom and dove in to discover an Olmec treasure trove. Another version has them going in their canoes out to a spring in the middle of the brackish river and dropping a bucket; then, while diving in to retrieve the bucket, finding the treasure. Of course, by the time the Mexican archaeologists arrived, all the artifacts had vanished into the maw of the U.S. art market.

The Río Pesquero masks are carved from an assortment of white, gray, and greenish jadeite, some of which is mottled with darker hues of green or brown which make them very appealing to modern eyes. The ancient Mesoamericans, however, would have considered this beautiful mottling to be a flaw, preferring the unblemished stone typical of unquestionably authentic pieces. The masks all appear to the work of a single very talented carver who, in the best tradition of forgery, did not simply copy known works. The masks are well carved and highly polished and some of them feature incised designs, including were-jaguars, supernaturals, and esoteric symbols. To enhance contrast, the lines were selectively and carefully rubbed with ochre or cinnabar. Interestingly, the so-called “Sainsbury mask” was shown in recent conservation work to have had its facial embellishments carved after it had been broken and glued back together. (Leyenaar and Pillsbury 1997, 18-21).

Pic 9: ‘Olmec jade mask’ from Río Pesquero; Xalapa Museum of Anthropology, Mexico
Pic 9: ‘Olmec jade mask’ from Río Pesquero; Xalapa Museum of Anthropology, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Another problem with these masks is that they show emotion, a feature uncommon in most ancient American art. The presence of drill holes beneath the earlobes and of drilled out irises on several of these masks suggests the possibility of their having been worn and thus being ancient precursors to Colonial masking traditions. Recently, a noted Olmec scholar hypothesized that they were mummy bundle masks. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of these European masking traditions nor of mummy bundles among the ancient Olmec. Still, it shows that there is no theory too far-fetched that it cannot be used to justify a beloved artifact of spurious origin.

Why is so much of this still going on today? Besides the fact that some people want to believe so badly that anything seems plausible to them, there seems to be a serious problem in the museum world. Many museum curators, often highly earnest people, are called upon to work in areas about which they know little or nothing. Also, they are usually under immense pressure — all museum personnel are — to accept things, even obvious fakes, from wealthy donors. These are people who are financially and politically important and thus in a position to “help” the museum in other ways. This is how museums find themselves with 85% or more fakes. There are some U.S. and European museums and a couple of Latin American ones too, where the “Precolumbian” collections are actually nearly 100% “Postcolumbian”.

Pic 10: Two examples of 19th century European private collectors’ sales catalogues
Pic 10: Two examples of 19th century European private collectors’ sales catalogues (Click on image to enlarge)

The art market is virtually unregulated and, even though many galleries and auction houses are dealing in stolen objects and a goodly number of fakes, legal measures are seldom taken against them. Why? In many western countries collecting antiquities is seen as a prestigious hobby and, at most, a victimless crime. And if your collection is mostly fakes? Well, no collector we have ever met has admitted to owning a single fake, and they wouldn’t believe they did no matter how many ways you proved it.

The problem is that the paradigm is wrong. People claim that looted Precolumbian art is genuine until proven fake, when the reality is that nothing can be assumed to be genuine unless it is properly excavated from a legitimate archaeological dig. Science cannot prove that your beautiful mask or Maya Codex vase is real. Perhaps it can lower the odds that it is a fake, but scientific tests such as thermoluminesence and radiocarbon dating can be forged or the results skewed by various means. So, unprovenanced works (virtually all looted or forged) accepted as genuine present a real problem. These dubious pieces usually end up in “important” collections, and, from there, move into books, art history, and archaeology classes, becoming the exemplars on which scholars are trained. Thus, they pervert current and future history as they go.

Pic 11: Side view of ‘The Wrestler’ when on display in the National Museum of Anthropology in 2006
Pic 11: Side view of ‘The Wrestler’ when on display in the National Museum of Anthropology in 2006 (Click on image to enlarge)

*** Update 2015
Although many people – in Europe and North America - have been loath to consider the famous “Olmec Wrestler” as a forgery - he is, after all, entirely too pretty, the archaeologists of the National Museum in Mexico City have “retired” him. No comment, as is the usual manner in official matters such as this.

The statue has been removed from its position as the centerpiece of the exhibit on the Olmec in the National Museum of Anthropology and taken to an unknown storage facility (the Mexican have an impressive collection of forgeries, although their exact whereabouts are not public). Moreover, his picture was removed so hastily from the online “Treasures of the National Museum” that for some time there was a green blank where the photograph had been (it is now completely fixed). It has also disappeared form the online collections database. Since virtually no one in the Mexican archaeological establishment has ever believed in the authenticity of the “Wrestler” the statue remained on display, because of political pressures. The Director of the National Museum was Felipe Solis, a fervent supporter of the Wrestler, therefore, despite a lot of complaining about the statue, it stayed on display. However, Solis died in 2009 and apparently enough time has passed that his friends and supporters are also either dead or retired from public life. So the Wrestler has finally been delegated to the forgeries storage facility where he should have been since he first surfaced.

Further note from the Editor:-
We have been informed (July 2015) by Matthew H. Robb that the ‘Wrestler’ figure IS now back on display at the Museo Nacional. We simply aren’t sufficiently qualified ourselves to judge on this issue. For the moment we feel it right to leave this article as it is. It goes without saying, too, that whether on or off public display, widespread and serious doubts have been raised as to the authenticity of this piece...

References cited:-
• Batres, Leopoldo
1909 Antigüedades mejicanas falsificadas, falsificaciones y falsificadores. Imprenta de Videncia S. Sorio, México, D. F.
• Gondra, Isidro R.
1844-1846 Esplicación de las láminas pertenecientes a la historia antigua de México y a la conquista. William H. Prescott, Historia de la conquista de México, Vol. 3. Ignación Cumplido, México, D. F.
• Jones, Mark (editor)
1990 Fake? The Art of Deception. British Museum, London.
• Leyennar, Ted J. J. and Joanne Pillsbury
1997 Mesoamerica. In The Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, Vol III, Precolumbian, Asian, Egyptian and European Antiquities. Edited by Steven Hooper, pp. 2-84, Yale University Press, New Haven CT.
• Pasztory, Esther
1982 Three Aztec Masks of the God Xipe. In Falsifications and Misreconstructions of Pre-Columbian Art, edited by Elizabeth H. Boone, pp. 77-106. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.
• Riviale, Pascal
2001 Eugène Boban ou les aventures d’un antiquaire au pays des americanistes. Journal de la Societé des Americanistes 87, pp. 351-362. Paris.
• Sax, Margaret, Jane M. Walsh, Ian C. Freestone, Andrew H. Rankin, and Nigel D. Meeks
2008 The Origins of Two Purportedly Pre-Columbian Mexican Crystal Skulls. Journal of Archaeological Science 35, pp. 2651-2760.

Further reading:-
These problems with specific reference to fraudulent objects and dubious practices and beliefs are treated in more detail in:-
• Kelker, Nancy L. and Karen Olsen Bruhns
2010 Faking Ancient Mesoamerica, Left coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 2: B/W print in the Museo Templo Mayor photographed by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: © The Trustees of the British Museum Department: Africa, Oceania & the Americas
• Pic 4: scanned from our copy of Anahuac: or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern by Edward B. Tylor, London, Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861
• Pic 5: courtesy Karen O. Bruhns
• Pix 6 & 7: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 8: courtesy Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia
• Pic 9: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 10: courtesy Marjorie Caygill

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 13th 2011

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