The topic of forgeries relates to our reliefs in a fascinating way, one that can serve as an example of the process behind authentication of an ancient work of art, and that demonstrates the problems that arise when such a work’s authenticity is in question. This question, of the reliefs’ authenticity, is certainly a loaded one. As of now, we cannot be sure if they are authentic or fake.
We know that our reliefs were bought on the art market, and more specifically that at least three of them were bought in Cairo from the Khawam Brothers, very reputable antiquities dealers, in 1961. The Khawam Brothers probably bought the reliefs from middlemen in Oxyrhynchus, a city in Upper Egypt that is home to the most important archaeological site for late Antique Egyptian art. However, since the reliefs were not excavated in an archaeologically sound manner by scholars, we have no way of knowing if they truly came out of the ground or not. This issue is one that is ever present when one is dealing with works of ancient art that first surface on the art market.
If an ancient work is for sale on the art market, its authenticity must always be questioned. Because of UNESCO’s cultural patrimony laws, pieces excavated after 1970 must remain in their country of origin. This forces sellers to be vague about the location of the work's discovery, regardless of how much specific information they may actually have, in order to avoid attracting the attention of the source country, which could attempt to seize illegally exported work. For this reason, provenances given by dealers are rarely helpful in determining a work's authenticity. In addition, we lose valuable information about an object’s use and significance in antiquity if it is not excavated in an archaeologically sound manner.
Not knowing the details of our reliefs’ excavation makes it much more likely that they could be fakes. Many works of late Antique Egyptian limestone sculpture, similar to ours, have been revealed to be forgeries in recent years. In Donald B. Spanel’s article from 2001, “Two Groups of ‘Coptic’ Sculpture and Relief in the Brooklyn Museum”, he claims that many works in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection of Coptic sculpture are forgeries. We know some of the fake works came from the Sheikh Ibada group, as well as others (Spanel 89). The key reasons why he says these are fakes are, “frequent use of Christian symbols and imagery, lack of provenance, their relatively recent premiere, and their sale by a small group of dealers” (Spanel 90). Much authentic Coptic art does not portray overtly Christian subject matter, which could be a good sign for our reliefs (Spanel 90-91). Like our reliefs, there was no archaeological context for any of these works. He then goes through work by work, explaining why stylistically and historically he believes each one is fake. Finally, the Brooklyn Museum put on an entire exhibit in 2009 in conjunction with the announcement that certain late Antique Egyptian works that they had purchased between the 1940s and 1970s were fakes, some of which were works that Spanel also identified as such (Russmann 17-18).
In September 2008, after the Brooklyn Museum had announced this exhibit, Dr. Jerome Eisenberg of the Royal-Athena Gallery in New York City announced that 3 or 4 of about 70 works in his “Late Egyptian and Coptic Sculptures” catalogue of May 1960 were fakes as well (Bailey). He purchased them “in good faith” from a “reliable dealer in Cairo” named Kamel Hammouda (Bailey). All these acknowledgements that, in retrospect, many works purchased on the art market between the 1940s and 1970s were fakes show that during this time many forgers were creating works of late Antique Egyptian sculpture and passing them off as authentic. This should certainly serve as a warning to us that we should question the authenticity of our pieces.
There are three primary methods for determining the authenticity of a work of art. One method of assessing the authenticity of an ancient work draws on historical evidence, such as whether the form and type of object, the inscription or the iconography make basic historical sense (Phillips). There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of our reliefs on this basis. There are many ancient parallels for their form, type and iconography, and none of them are inscribed. Additionally, technical examination, such as the use of scientific methods, is another way to determine the authenticity of a work (Phillips). Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine the date when limestone like ours was carved through scientific testing.
Lastly, there is connoisseurship, the determination of a work as authentic or inauthentic through close scrutiny and research, often by an expert in the field. Connoisseurship is a thorny issue, especially when applied to our reliefs. It relies on human judgment, which can be clouded (Phillips). Since no other methods of authentication can be used on our reliefs, we are reliant on connoisseurship, at least for the present, to determine their authenticity. As a result, two members of our class each interviewed a leading scholar in the field - one based at a university and the other at a museum - on his or her opinion of the authenticity of our reliefs. Unfortunately, these two scholars possess conflicting opinions on the subject. One believed our reliefs were authentic. The other said he or she could not guarantee the antiquity of any, and that he or she was almost certain some were modern imitations. This assessment was based on this scholar's view that some of the stylistic and iconographic aspects of some of the reliefs were "peculiar" or "strange." It is worth noting that these two experts based their assessments of our reliefs on photographs alone. Perhaps if they are able to examine them in person at some point in the future, they may come to less radically differing conclusions.
One of the unusual features of connoisseurship is that the weight of a given opinion is often based less on the evidence and more on the reputation of the person giving the opinion. David Ebitz comments on this in his article “Connoisseurship as Practice”, “Nevertheless, the recognized authority of the person pronouncing an attribution or hypothesis does function usefully to assign at least an initial truth value to that statement” (Ebitz 210). We encountered this practice firsthand. When I told the scholar who was doubtful of our reliefs' authenticity the conflicting opinion of the other scholar, the scholar became less certain of his or her own assessment of the evidence, deferring to the other scholar, and noting that the other scholar was "the best" in the field. This is a salutary reminder of the ways in which connoisseurship is shaped by many factors other than a strictly objective evaluation of the evidence.
Discovering a work is inauthentic has a wide range of implications. If a work is considered to be authentic when it is not, this can pose serious confusion for connoisseurs. If such a work has been used as evidence for a historical understanding of a particular style or period, when it is discovered to be a fake, this information becomes obsolete (Phillips). When the Brooklyn Museum announced that some of their Late Antique Egyptian works were fakes, scholars in the field had to reassess prior assumptions about this style of art. One article wrote that this “distorted our concept of Coptic art” (Bailey).
Eliza Graham '14 is an Art History major and French minor at Colgate University.