Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 2, 2019
Justin Jennings and Adam T. Sellen, eds. Real Fake: The Story of a Zapotec Urn Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum Press, 2018. 270 pp.; 181 color ills.; 92 b/w ills. EBook $0.00 (9780888545237)

Fakes, pastiches, deceptive restorations, and outright forgeries have been a persistent problem in the study of art and antiquities since the Renaissance. Understandably, few museums are willing to release the number of such false pieces in their collections, but conservative estimates have long suggested 40 percent of works in museums are not what they claim to be. However, recent investigation at San Francisco’s Mexican Museum, for example, have shown some institutions—and some collections within them—have significantly higher statistics. While the average museumgoer may give little thought to the authenticity of what is on view, the polluting influence of fraudulent works is a grave concern for scholars and educators who use artworks as primary cultural evidence.

Although plenty of fakes and forgeries can be found on the art market today, many problematic works entered museum collections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the prevailing concept of the museum was as an encyclopedic institution. In North America and Europe, these evolving “museums of everything” sent collecting curators around the world to acquire objects. This created a market situation in which fakery rose to meet demand. In Mexico, frequented by many of these collectors, forgery workshops had long been cranking out spurious works of all types. Many of these curators had scant knowledge of the Precolumbian cultures they were collecting, the field being relatively unknown and little published at the time. They had only their training, usually in Classical archaeology or Egyptology, and their skills of connoisseurship to rely on; science was decades away from providing any assistance. This was a situation in which inauthentic works of all kinds easily made their way into museums and into the scholarly literature based on their holdings.

Real Fake: The Story of a Zapotec Urn, edited by Justin Jennings and Adam T. Sellen and published by the Royal Ontario Museum, is a fascinating story of what can be learned when an institution is willing to undertake a thorough visual and scientific investigation of its problematic artifacts. The lavishly illustrated and well-written work (available as a free eBook from the Royal Ontario Museum website and through Amazon Kindle) provides the reader with an in-depth examination of the piece catalogued as HM 1953. This Zapotec Cociyo Urn pastiche was selected for examination because, as the authors state in the preface, it “did not fit the researchers’ notion of an ancient object, and . . . did not conform to what was then known about fakes” (v).

The urn was one of 1,500 Zapotec objects acquired in 1914 by the museum’s first director, Charles Trick Currelly, from Constantine Rickards, a British vice consul in Mexico City. Rickards had authored a book on Mexican antiquities, The Ruins of Mexico (1910), and was considered to be a reputable and knowledgeable collector. Prior to the Mexican Revolution, Rickards had had land holdings in Oaxaca and had moved in the highest social circles there. He also seems to have been well acquainted with the local antiquity-fabricating workshops. Among the artifacts sold by Rickards to collection builders in Europe and America during the first two decades of the twentieth century were some authentic urns, lots of pastiches constructed from old and new elements, and more than a few entirely modern works.

Real Fake divides its study of HM 1953 into two parts. The initial section consists of four chapters, the first of which is a theoretical discussion of the colonialist approach to museum building, with further chapters devoted to cultural and historical contexts. In particular, the second and third chapters, written by Javier Urcid and Adam Sellen, respectively, are excellent, providing the reader with sound and incredibly useful information on Zapotec archaeology, art, and cultural history. Numerous illustrations and explanatory text boxes offer insight into the finer points of Zapotec pictographic writing, world view, and the manufacture, decoration, and use of Zapotec figural urns. The final chapter of this section details the provenance of HM 1953 from its brief debut in the collection of the Oaxaca Museum and acquisition by Rickards to its arrival at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).

The second part comprises the bulk and real excitement of the volume. Its nine chapters take on the character of a detective story as each scientific test peels back layers of artifice and reveals the complex history of the piece, its alterations, and reconstructions. While the amount of scientific data contained in these chapters may overwhelm some readers, it is well worth the effort. The many authors of these chapters are to be commended for their efforts to make science accessible to non-STEM audiences. Beyond taking the reader through the process of separating out the urn’s ancient and modern parts, these chapters provide fascinating insights into the urn’s history and offer important new information about the where, when, and how of fakery. For example, petrographic analysis allowed researchers to connect the clays used in the original urn fragments to the area around the town of Ejutla thereby suggesting a possible source for an object that was otherwise without provenience. Additionally, the petrology of the modern elements points to the neighborhood of Santa Maria Atzompa, near the capital of Oaxaca, as the probable location of the workshop that created the pastiche that was HM 1953 (262–64). Here, science is making a significant contribution to a field where looted objects far outnumber those excavated archaeologically.

The scientific evaluation of HM 1953 begins, in part 2, with the least invasive and nondestructive technologies such as long-wave ultraviolet radiation (UVA), X-radiography, and computed tomography (CT) scanning, which, respectively, allowed conservators to see areas of dissimilar materials, view below the surface to see breaks, voids, repairs, and varying thicknesses of materials, and finally, to generate a three-dimensional image of the urn’s interior structure. Text boxes and detailed images explain the various tests in terms that are accessible to the general reader.

Subsequent chapters proceed to minimally invasive tests, requiring small samples of inconspicuously obtained material. These tests included thermoluminescence to ascertain the relative ages of the various parts of the urn, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) to determine the elemental composition of the clays used in the manufacture of the original and modern elements, and ceramic petrology analysis to differentiate the clays used based on granophyric inclusions. These tests provided researchers with evidence that HM 1953 had experienced multiple transformations between its creation by Zapotec artisans and its arrival at the ROM. Having successfully and irrefutably determined what parts of HM 1953 were ancient (although not necessarily from the same urn) and which were later additions and restorations, conservators at the ROM de-restored the piece, removing all the non-original modern and ancient pastiched elements. The deconstruction of the urn allowed for analysis of the ancient and modern pigments and adhesives used in its creation and various restorations. The final chapter in this section compares the ancient parts of the urn with a similar one in Berlin (IV Ca 26836) from the Howard Leigh Collection that had also undergone XRF and thin section petrography. The results suggest that the urns, together with a third from the Leigh Collection (now at the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Oaxaca), may have originally been part of the same set. Again, making these sorts of definitive material connections between objects is important and useful work that would not be possible without the help of science.

Since radiocarbon dating came into use in the late 1940s, science has increasingly been called upon to develop testing methods to replace connoisseurship in evaluations of authenticity. This is due not only to the possibility of human error or mistakes through deficit of knowledge, but also to lapses in integrity, resulting in “as-paid-for” authentications. Science, when performed in a reliable, not-for-profit lab, by contrast, is perceived as objective, unbiased, and quantifiable. It provides the concrete evidence that is often lacking in the connoisseur’s intuitive assessment. The many tests described in Real Fake—many more than would be within the reach of the average museum without a conservation lab or very deep pockets—do, indeed, demonstrate science’s ability to arbitrate questions of authenticity as well as provide additional information typically beyond the reach of connoisseurship. However, that is not the point of the book. Rather, Real Fake argues that in building the profile of any object, as well as in determining its authenticity, there are important roles to be played by art history, by archaeology, and by conservation sciences, each contributing valuable information and enriching aspects of the story. Real Fake’s holistic approach to the study of HM 1953 is a much-needed contribution to a growing field of scholarship, the study of fakes, forgeries, and pastiches.

Nancy Kelker
Professor of Art History, Middle Tennessee State University