Delectable discoveries, real and
fake, at Carlos Museum exhibit
"Forgers are in love with themselves. And that's one reason why their farces are uncovered. Because they are so fond of themselves, rarely do they fully abandon their artistic personalities."-"Discovery and Deceit" wall text
Most museum visitors never think twice about the authenticity of art on display. But the current Carlos Museum exhibit, "Discovery and Deceit: Archaeology & The Forger's Craft," demonstrates that some of the world's finest art historians have been fooled by forgers or have doubted the authenticity of many genuine works of art-even those displayed in museums for years.
"How radical an idea this show is," said Eric Varner, associate professor in art history and classics, before launching into a museum gallery talk on April 2. "How courageous it is for a curator to put our mistakes on view." Robert Cohon of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., is the exhibit's curator.
Leading a group around the gallery, Varner discussed various marble portraits on display. Marble portraits are "head shots" captured in stone of influential-in this case, Roman-citizens, emperors, generals and others.
There are basic clues that art historians look for in uncovering inauthentic works, said Varner. "If enough alarm bells start going off, then there may be enough evidence to support the idea the work is a fake," he said. Is the rendering consistent with other artistic styles of the period? For example, a first century BC artist fashioned faces differently than his first century AD counterpart. What are the patterns of weathering? "It is highly unusual for Roman portraits to retain polishing," said Varner. Furthermore, "when marble ages, it also changes color," he said. Sometimes encrustation on once buried treasures is discovered to be freshly applied dirt, other times scientific testing of a speck of paint reveals it to be an ancient mixture.
Scientists can test marble for place of origin. They know which quarries were used only in antiquity and which are still used today. They use powerful gamma-rays to penetrate stone and reveal expertly filled in cracks. Gamma-rays revealed the nose, mouth, ears, chin and crown of one ancient portrait of a Roman girl in the exhibit to have been seamlessly repaired at some point in time. These same repairs led some art historians to doubt the portrait's authenticity.
As the Roman girl's history implies, uncovering fakes is not an exact science and not all fakes are deliberately deceptive-or fake at all.
"Sometimes 'ancient' portraits were created-especially during the Renaissance and Baroque periods-to make a series of the 12 emperors," said Varner. Portraits of unpopular emperors like Caligula or Nero were mostly destroyed in antiquity, so later artists fashioned new busts to fill out patrons' collections with no intent to deceive. "These then found their way onto the antiquity market as real," noted Varner.
Sometimes, however, busts of the ancient emperors were recut in antiquity and later suspected as forgeries because hair styles or other clues seemed to give them away. These were usually imperial portraits of those formally sanctioned from memory by the Roman senate, said Varner. So, for example, an artist would refashion a portrait of Caligula into Claudius, his successor. "This was done for practical reasons since portraits-and marble-were expensive, but also for ideological reasons," said Varner. "The new emperor was literally taking over the image of a condemned predecessor."
Varner hopes the fascinating-and oftentimes fun-examples on display at "Discovery and Deceit" will do something more than provide visitors with an afternoon's diversion. "It's about getting people to really look at objects," he said, "not taking things for granted." "Discovery and Deceit" will remain on display at the Carlos Museum until May 18.
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