Arthur Palmer - Aboriginal, Oceanic & Tribal Art

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Fake Artifacts? Get Real!

“Forgery results from dishonest intent, not from skillful replica work”
H.D.Skinner & T. Barrow 1974. The Faking of Maori Art. Studies in Pacific Material Culture 1921-1972.

“Rule No. 1. Any artefact purchased as a bargain is by definition a fake.” Michael Hamson 2004.

“Artifacts not bought in Sydney are fakes!” Sydney Dealer (Urban myth joke originally imported from France v/s the World? & now held as an article of faith only by NSWelshmen.)

As the prices and intrinsic value for good quality pieces of material culture rise - so does the probability, possibility & reality of fakes entering the market to take advantage of demand and profits. However, the definition of what constitutes a fake artefact is often not clear cut. Clearly, an outright fake work i.e. a Maori Feather Box or a Rainforest Sword made in the last two years in Bali or the Philippines, relying on two dimensional photographs of well or lesser known published examples, is produced purely with the intention to deceive and defraud innocent, or not so innocent, dealers, collectors or institutions. Less clear, are those genuine artifacts which are repaired, touched up, embellished, added to, aged, stressed, and provided with new patina or provenance to improve their appearance and increase appeal and therefore value. What is dishonest & what justifies bringing a piece back to its former glory?

Fakes abound.
Rumors of fakes abound –fake Arnhem Land bark paintings from Victoria, Fake Rainforest Shields from Queensland, fake pieces from the Sepik, fake Matty dish from the Philipines, fake Solomon shields & figures, fake Maori pieces from everywhere? What, as collectors and dealers or staff in institutions should we do when we suspect or discover a fake? For those of us who are Approved Government valuers should there be sec.14 mandatory reporting? If we have just bought/traded a fake – is it a very embarrassing & expensive lesson – or an exercise in passing it through our hands faster than the speed of light? What to do with a counterfeit $50 note? Report to bank & lose it? Or spend in Supermarket & pocket real change? Is this an ethical/moral dilemma or financial Darwinism? To complicate matters, some well known fakes are now very collectable!

When is a replica fake?
Over the past three decades I’ve had many fakes turn up – usually in the hands of a dealer who has just purchased it for a pittance believing it to have been the valuable real thing & very pleased with themselves. I’ve famously brought some also! Some dealers never learn – some collectors never find out.

How do you positively identify a fake?
Ebay is particularly problematic where all you have to interrogate is a two dimensional, poor resolution photograph & a purple provenance/description. What initially makes you suspicious and how do you confirm your doubts? A few years ago a long term, well respected big dealer turned up at my gallery to gloatingly show me a newly purchased Maori whale bone club. Hopping excitedly from foot to foot he told me it was the ‘bargain of the decade’! When he handed it to me a dull alarm bell went off - the weight and conformation seemed about ok, it handled well and had good balance.

Its appearance was comforting with a deep, honey, aged patina and hourglass bored hole. A big advantage in identifying fakes is to have handled and examined many examples in public collections with unimpeachable provenance. I had that advantage from years of working in museums with some of the finest collections of depth. Also in another lifetime, I’d worked closely with epoxy resins both as a surfboard maker and shaper and in the field of fine art sculptural moldings and large scale glass abstractions. Both these fields of experience now interceded to suspect a fake.

When we took the club out into the light and looked at it through the 8x magnifying glass that should always be in your pocket, it revealed a thin line of microscopic bubbles along the leading edge of the blade. A sure sign of the gel release of a molded resin object. In this case, a mould of a no doubt real whale bone club now in the form of epoxy resin and powdered cow bone, with carefully added aged patina. Very character forming and disappointing for its once proud new owner! Lesson learnt however, it did not save them from a later, even more expensive and embarrassing purchase of a fake Yuat flute stopper for the price of a new car. This time some comfort could be gained from the fact that the wood was real!

As Skinner notes, replicas & fake Maori short & long clubs & hei-tiki have been produced in NZ for a 100+ years in real whalebone & greenstone. Dunedin firms produced countless Maori greenstone items in the late 1880s through to 1910. Most found their way into Museums & family collections, including well known Maori families as replacement heirloom treasures. Auckland specialized in the faking of Maori whale bone artifacts & at the same time firms in Germany (Berlin & Idar Oberstein) produced huge numbers of greenstone & marine ivory Maori artifacts for the NZ trade.

Much of this product is in fact finer work than the later Maori trade pieces made in the late C18 – early C19 purely for trade with European ships. The work of many of these Maori carvers declined in skill & care to a point where it became slipshod. How often do the Dunedin, Auckland & German firm’s “ethnographic” masterpieces work turn up undetected in Auction Houses now? Just on a numbers ratio it must be very often. There must be thousands in collections.

Some of the fakes coming out of the Sepik which cause tremors of fear (the Leviswich flinch!) amongst the hardiest collector/dealers, really present no problem. One of the most beautiful and skillful examples to pass through my hands was a large black coral and crocodile tooth female fetish which stylistically was a charming mixture of Sepik, African and Paleolithic European – a Jeff Leverswich masterpiece which couldn’t possibly be considered a fake. A work of fine art, yes – an ethnographic fake, no. I loved it and so did my client. Incidentally this piece was purchased from an indigenous Papuan expat here in Brisbane – not a European carpetbagger!

The natural enemy of Fakes is unimpeachable provenance.
However the two edged sword is that a fake provenance can often successfully protect a fake artifact from critical exposure, examination & detection. Found in junk shop & private collector.

Are these euphemisms for may be a fake ?
How to protect your integrity?
Embrace a client who collects fakes??


  • I loved your article since you provide useful tips to identify them.
    Your article was mentionned it my discussion group .
    I also once was fooled bu a resin Sepik figure sold to me as beeing in bone. I still have another Sepik stick in wood that als o turned out beeing made in Europe. Still a strong carving but not a Sepik piece.

    A citation for your list:

    "The best expert is the doing less mistakes than the others."


    David Norden,

    By Blogger David, at November 20, 2006 12:45 PM  

  • If it seems too good to be true.
    Then it probably is - too good to be true..
    Reading more books, getting the right advice and seeing for stuff is still the only way to avoid most of the pitfalls.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at November 20, 2006 1:29 PM  

  • quick anecdote...a dealer in the US sells a bodgy solomon islands canoe prow figure to a collector in australia.
    Collector gets it, figures it for a fake and gets to work on 'embellishing it' to make it sell on.
    He places it in an auction room in New Zealand to cover his connection many months later.
    US dealer visits auction sees canoe prow and thinks 'gee I sold one worse than this for 10,000' and also probably 'where can you get another?' his dud catch phase.
    Dealer buys it and still does not know it was his in the first place....

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at November 20, 2006 1:36 PM  

  • How Brave!, and how True.My old friend Leo in Sydney, now sadly gone, Was one of the greatest club collectors in the world.
    He once bought two fake Maori whale bone clubs.If they fooled him, they would have fooled anybody. Love your Blog, Artifact Gallery and your beautiful pieces.
    We are very glad you have come out of retirement !!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 11, 2006 12:33 AM  

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