1The basic rule of free-market economics – that increased demand will lead to an increase in supply – holds equally true for the supply of antiquities. The supply of genuine antiquities is of course finite, and so the demand has to be met by new ‘antiquities’. In 19th century Europe, collecting antiquities became particularly fashionable amongst gentlemen of means (though collecting goes back much earlier), and the output of forgeries of collectibles, which could encompass anything from Renaissance jewellery to instruments of torture of the Spanish Inquisition, turned into an expanding industry (Jones, 1990).
2All collectors are vulnerable to forgers who customise their product to tempt the buyer with something that will fill an important gap in their collections, and museums are just as likely as the private collector to fall into the trap. The so-called Tiara of Saitaphernes, who was a historical 3rd century BC Scythian king, was purchased by the Musée du Louvre in 1896 (Collignon, 1899; de Pradenne, 1932). In retrospect, it can be observed that the desire to acquire this unique and undoubtedly fine example of the goldsmith’s art overcame caution. It soon became known that it had been made by a Russian goldsmith and that the scenes depicted on it were inspired by illustrations from contemporary books on Greek vases, as well as by the tales of the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer and scenes from Scythian life, mixing together styles of different dates.
3Unlike private collectors, who almost invariably acquire by purchase, museums may acquire their collections by other routes. The first of these is direct from archaeological excavation, which usually provides the best possible provenance. However, it is not unknown for deception to occur even on excavations, whether as a practical joke, attention seeking or malice.
4A second route by which items enter public collections is by donation, either of individual items or of a complete collection (often on the death of a collector, to mitigate taxation). Such large groups of artefacts sometimes include forgeries amongst the genuine pieces, and the forgeries may remain unquestioned for many years before coming to the attention of a curator or visiting scholar. King George III’s large collection of coins and medals, deposited at the British Museum in 1825, included a gold Roman coin depicting ‘Brutus’ (CM B.11447). It was once thought to represent Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain, and was thus considered very desirable at the time, as a missing link in a chronological sequence of coins and medals representing the rulers of Britain. This coin is in fact a close copy in gold of an ancient Roman silver coin depicting Marcus Junius Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar.
5Any artefact of gold will tend to command a higher price than the equivalent item made of other materials, and in some respects it is easier to produce a convincing ‘antiquity’ from gold than, for example, from silver. Gold is a particularly difficult material to authenticate scientifically, although this situation is already changing with the development of new techniques (Eugster et al., 2009). The forensic approach to the detection of forgeries relies on finding anachronisms in the materials or techniques used to make them, and a comprehensive database of materials and techniques is therefore of prime importance (Craddock, 2009). The holy grail of a simple test for authenticity may be approaching, but in reality there is as yet no substitute for knowledge acquired by in-depth scientific research into the history of technology, as the following case studies demonstrate.
6Early medieval European jewellery became particularly popular amongst late 19th/early 20th century collectors, attracted to the artefacts of the ancestors of modern European nations. By the early 20th century, major collections in Europe and the USA contained forgeries of jewellery purporting to be from this period, and also a number of ‘improved’ genuine artefacts, such as a genuine iron Merovingian buckle (BM1928,0720.1) which has on it a copper-alloy overlay with what was claimed to be the earliest representation of the Crucifixion (Smith, 1928; Baum, 1937). However, radiography revealed the original surface, with its silver-inlaid decoration, beneath the faked additions. When an object has a feature which makes it the earliest or indeed the only example of its type, it merits very close inspection.
Figure 1: Items from the Lombard treasure.
Figure 1 : Objets du trésor des Lombards.
7A group of more than 30 items of gold work, purporting to originate from northern Italy, from the tomb of the Lombardic King Agilulf (died AD 615) and from that of his queen, Theodelinda (died AD 628), was in fact manufactured about 1929-30. It is no coincidence that it was contemporaneous with the rise to power of Mussolini, as the Treasure was designed deliberately to appeal to a sense of nationalism. Individual items are based on genuine pieces. For example, the buckle is an extravagant combination of features from a number of buckles illustrated in the literature, and the dagger handle is remarkably like those on swords carried by the four emperors in a stone sculpture at San Marco in Venice. The inscription on the dagger bears the name of Theodelinda and the iconography on the other pieces derives from the famous Lombardic helmet fragment depicting her husband King Agilulf, preserved in the Bargello Museum in Florence. Doubts grew about the Treasure on stylistic grounds and it failed to find a buyer, and was thus withdrawn from the market. Dafydd Kidd, then a curator at the British Museum, was interested to see what a scientific examination of these forgeries might reveal of the techniques being employed by the forgers, and in 1988 he purchased two gold mounts for a study. The scientific examination of these two pieces ascertained that the gold was of unusually high purity, and that the solder of the major structural joint of each item contained the element cadmium, an element not found in ancient solders (Meeks and Craddock, 1991). A buckle from the Treasure has red and white glass inlay imitating cloisonné work (Fig. 1). The white glass is opacified with arsenic oxide, which was not used for glass making until the 18th century (Craddock, 2009: 213, 224-5). There are numerous other anachronisms in the technology, although the iron blade of the dagger may well be ancient.
8An extensive survey of the collection of pre-Columbian gold at the British Museum, utilizing a range of scientific techniques, discovered that a fragmentary miniature model of a spouted vessel, in the style of the Chimu culture of pre-Columbian Peru, was not what it appeared to be (BM1947Am21.1) (Fig. 2). The artefact was donated to the British Museum in 1947, and from a visual examination was assumed to be of cast gold alloy; indeed, it was until recently registered as being made of gold. However, X-ray fluorescence analysis and examination by scanning electron microscopy (SEM) showed that the metal is not gold, but pure copper which has been gilded. Furthermore, the -columnar microstructure of a small polished cross-section taken from a broken edge indicated that it was neither cast nor worked; rather, it is an electroform, which was subsequently electroplated with a thin layer of gold. Electroforming is a modern method of depositing metal from solution onto the surface of a model by means of an electric current, a technique for making metal items which does not occur until the mid-19th century.
9An Egyptian-style necklace of unknown provenance was donated to the British Museum in 1939 and was accepted until recently as dating to the New Kingdom (EA65279) (Andrews, 1996). It consists of 38 cast, solid-gold fly pendant amulets and spherical almandine garnet beads of 4-6 mm in diameter (Fig. 3). The garnet beads are considered peripheral to the question of authenticity, as there is no certainty that the beads were found together with the gold amulets: the stringing is modern and no garnet beads of the size and quality of these could be found amongst the extensive collections of Egyptian beads at the British Museum. A scientific investigation of the piece established that the alloy composition would not be out of place for the alloy ranges found amongst Egyptian New Kingdom gold work, with circa 75% gold, 20% silver and 5% copper, but it could equally be described as a modern 18 carat alloy. The ‘wear’ on the gold is unusually coarse, but it is the manufacturing technique used to make the amulets that is most unusual. Large, cast amulets of Egyptian deities do exist, but sets of small identical pendants such as those on this necklace are usually made of foil and are hollow. In addition, those which are undoubtedly of ancient manufacture are mostly threaded via holes through the body or head of the fly, whereas these have a suspension ring at the top. Lilyquist’s study of Egyptian fly amulets identified some examples of modern manufacture, though none of them was cast (Lilyquist, 2003). It is possible that well-provenanced examples of cast solid-gold fly pendants will be excavated in the future and vindicate this piece, but until then its authenticity remains very much in doubt.
Figure 2: Fragmentary Chimu-style object (height c. 40 mm) with (right) a polished section through the metal revealing the columnar microstructure indicative of electroforming. (SEM BSE image).
Figure 2 : Objet fragmentaire de type Chimu (hauteur c. 40 mm) avec (à droite) une section polie à travers le métal indiquant la microstructure colonnaire typique de l’électroformage. (image BSE au MEB).
10The necklace was a bequest, presumably in good faith, and there may have been no intention to deceive by either the donor or even by the maker. It is perfectly possible that it was made as a wearable piece of modern jewellery in the Egyptian style, but over the years, after changing hands, its origins have been lost. If this were the case, it would not of course be defined as a forgery, because forgery implies a deliberate attempt to deceive. A Hellenistic gold strap necklace with pendants acquired by the British Museum in 1872 from Alessandro Castellani does seem to have been made deliberately to deceive (BM1872,0604.651). The Castellani family firm in Rome dealt in antiquities as well as making and restoring jewellery in the antique style so fashionable at the time.
Figure 3: Garnet and gold necklace with fly amulets, purporting to be New Kingdom period, Egypt.
Figure 3 : Collier de grenats et or avec des amulettes en forme de mouche, attribué au Nouvel Empire, Égypte.
11A study of the necklace using SEM established that one half of the necklace corresponds to the expectations for genuine Hellenistic Greek goldsmithing, but the wire used on the other half is manufactured by drawing, not by the classical strip-twist method, and is 99% pure gold (Meeks, 2007). It is therefore likely that this half was made by the Castellani firm. Presumably the original necklace was extensively damaged and had to be restored in the Castellani workshops to pass it off as a near perfect antiquity.
12To quote Mark Jones (1990), the curator of the exhibition ‘Fake? The Art of Deception’ at the British Museum and now Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, it is “[…] not that the less well informed may sometimes make mistakes, but even the most …rigorously organised of institutions can and will occasionally be wrong. And this is not simply because knowledge and experience can never be complete, but because perception itself is determined by the structure of expectations that underpins it.”
13Curatorial judgements of potential purchases cannot be truly objective; all of us are influenced by the times we live in. Some of the famous forgeries of the 19th century may seem obvious to us now, for example, with faces depicted according to the conventions of beauty fashionable in the 19th century. A forensic scientific approach, on the other hand, can be used to determine whether the materials and techniques are consistent with the date attributed to the piece. This of course requires extensive knowledge of what materials and techniques were current during the cultural period concerned, and such knowledge can only be acquired by the scientific study of large numbers of genuine artefacts. It is an advantage of large collections that they are likely to include many genuine pieces of well attested provenance which can be used for comparison. It is a truism that it is impossible to prove that an object is genuine, but scientific analysis is the key to determining whether a piece is restored, a pastiche, enhanced or an outright forgery.