Faking It

Paul Denis with Sara Irwin

For centuries, forgery of art and collectibles has plagued the world, and the end, it seems, is nowhere in sight. In ancient Rome, when Greek art became popular, it was copied to meet the demand. During the Middle Ages relics associated with Christ and the saints were highly prized and reproduced in great quantities. Renaissance sculptors imitated ancient Roman sculptures and fobbed them off as genuine antiquities. By the 19th century, just about every kind of art object was being forged.

Sometimes artisans intentionally copy much older objects, and over time these copies are misunderstood and marketed as originals. But more often, forging begins when a collecting mania takes off and the number of people seeking a type of object skyrockets. As genuine material becomes scarce, its price escalates. That’s when forgers, conspiring with unscrupulous dealers, step in—and reap handsome profits for their efforts.

The story behind Greek Tanagra figurines perfectly illustrates how intentional forgeries can spring up. One of the best-known types of Greek terracotta statuettes, these figurines are named for the ancient Greek town of Tanagra, where they were produced throughout the 3rd century BCE. Usually, the small sculptures depict a fashionable woman standing in a relaxed pose, elegantly clothed in a thin tunic and cloak. The people of Tanagra buried their dead with offerings—often these figurines, vases, or other household items. For 2,000 years their graves and the terracotta statuettes remained undisturbed.

Then, in 1871 local villagers began finding the tombs and looting them. Within a few years, almost 10,000 graves were plundered, flooding the Athenian market with thousands of genuine Tanagra figurines. Their fine workmanship, style, and elegance quickly caught on in the
rest of Europe and the figurines became a collecting phenomenon from London to St. Petersburg. Before long, demand far exceeded the ever-diminishing supply. By 1876, outright forgeries were being mass-produced, and counterfeit statuettes quickly swamped the art markets of Europe.

Some copies are strikingly similar to the real thing. But telltale signs give away a forgery. The base and figurine of forgeries were sometimes cast as a single piece, whereas genuine Tanagra figurines, like the ROM’s example, were always crafted separately from their bases. In the forgeries, the faces are poorly executed and the folds of the clothing often are very lightly modeled and almost lifeless compared to the genuine example. Finally, the surface of the forgeries looks artificial with encrusted dirt and bogus patches of white slip, and the clay is far more brownish than the authentic light orange-brown clay. Despite these clues, Tanagra forgers enjoyed great success in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Advances in science have made it easier than it was a century ago to catch the cleverest forgeries. A test called thermoluminescence can determine when clay was fired in a kiln—proving, for example, whether a figurine was fired only 100 years ago or more than 2,000.

With Chinese collectibles, it’s a different story. The Chinese have been collecting antiques since at least the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Demand at that time outstripped supply, and the shortfall was filled not by forgers but by artisans honestly replicating ancient objects. When they did not have a real antique to copy, they often referred to illustrations in woodblock catalogues. The intent of these “archaistic” pieces was not necessarily to mislead. Copying was seen as paying respectful homage to the past. But in today’s market, these reproductions can be mistaken for the artifacts they imitated, and passed off to the unwary as originals.

Two jade cicadas from the ROM’s collection illustrate the difficulty of authentication. One is simply carved, with few details, while the other is beautifully detailed, down to the spots on the wings. The plainer one probably came from an Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE) burial, where it would have been placed on the tongue of the deceased. Jade was believed to stop the body from decaying; the cicada represented immortality and resurrection. The detailed example is fairly recent, about 100 years old, inspired by more ancient pieces. For collectors, there is no way of knowing if the newer piece was intended to deceive. It may have been made simply as a beautiful little amulet or decorative object.

In China today, as in many other countries, there are enterprises that thrive on the production of fake antiques. They duplicate a wide variety of artifacts ranging from “Neolithic” jade carvings and painted-and-carved lacquer objects to bronze and ceramic vessels. Some target the tourist trade, but others go straight to the antiques market, where they fool unsuspecting buyers and dupe even seasoned experts.

With the trend toward steep increases in art prices, the forger’s nefarious trade will certainly continue to grow. That’s why it’s imperative for collectors to educate themselves with as much knowledge as possible by visiting museums, handling genuine objects offered for sale by respected dealers and auction houses, and remembering the savvy collector’s motto: “buy the book before the coin.”