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Are Fakes So Bad?

The spectacle of scholars authenticating and publishing unprovenanced artifacts is not simply pathetic but pernicious.

By Alexander H. Joffe
June 2004

In a famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin discusses the nature of the real and the unreal with terrible relevance for archaeology. As it became technologically possible to reproduce art works with greater precision and perfectly with the advent of photography in the mid-19th century, what was lost was something vital, what Benjamin called aura: "its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." Benjamin thought even the most perfect reproduction was depreciated, lacking authenticity. "The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object." 1

God knows what Benjamin would have thought of Adobe Photoshop, much less of Jar Jar Binks. But from Benjamin, we can extract without difficulty the most important lesson for archaeology: the necessity, the obligation to defend the real.

But having started with the sublime, the laws of physics demand we proceed directly to the ridiculous, an example that explains in precise terms the paradoxical psychological effect of fakes. In the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan delivers a tour de force performance in her justly celebrated deli scene. There she demonstrates to a disbelieving Billy Crystal exactly how to fake an orgasm, something that many of us no doubt found educational if not downright enlightening. But the key is not simply the ease with which the fake itself is generated, rather what comes afterward when a woman sitting at the next table leans forward to the waiter and says, "I'll have what she's having". Without knowing what is being sold, someone is buying. Fakery is both a supply and a demand side phenomenon, and each side requires explanation.

I suspect that antiquities fakers from Moses Shapira through the alleged misdeeds of Oded Golan are flattered by the comparison with Meg Ryan. The motivations seem, from the outside, to be relatively straightforward, ranging from money to the exercise of secret power. But in all cases there is a combination of both at work since the act of creating a fake is just that, something creative, which is unlike the act of making commodities that require less flair, panache, and daring, like aluminum, lawnmowers, or heroin. Or at least they don't require an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies. I must leave it to the courts to sort out matters of guilt or innocence, and to Neil Silberman and Yuval Goren as to the motives of the accused Oded Golan [who, unbeknownst to everyone, was apparently in the audience listening to this talk], whether he was some sort of Dr. Evil or just some poor schnook with tracing paper and a couple of chisels.

But money is only part of the answer; power is just as important. The importance in world history of having a laugh at someone else's expense has not been adequately explored. Seeing super-rich people waste their money is something the rest of us can all enjoy. But the systematic ability to manipulate scholars, the press and the public, and the all-encompassing sense of secret satisfaction that it generates should not be underestimated. But is this really so bad? Fakes that fool scholars have been around as long as there have been scholars, and they have always created a good amount of anti-intellectual satisfaction. Archaeological fakers are not the Unibomber.

Fakes do not work "for their own sake." Some fakes are obviously more successful than others. The impulse to create a talisman is powerful, and the talismanic appeal may be either secular or religious. Either way, the aesthetics must be situated. Fakes are not a distortion of some untainted and one-sided process where the past creates and scholars interpret. Archaeological fakes are not contaminants in a pure stream of history; they are highly revealing trace elements that demonstrate to us how the past and present interact. Fakes tell us, for better and for worse, not only how the past is valued in the present, in part as a commodity, but also how they function as a system of terms or frame of reference, understood as a living thing by living people. Only in this useful, but historically attenuated, sense do fakes possess an aura.

Most astonishing is the abnormal psychology of collectors. Benjamin commented that anyone who has seen a film is an expert, and this certainly applies to collectors. Like other sorts of obsessive-compulsive behavior, reality doesn't enter deeply into the equation. If collectors were just normal people buying a lemon, they would either say, "A fake. I want my money back," or "I'm done with this; I'm going back to buying something reliable like Rembrandts." In a sense, it really doesn't matter if something is fake; we want it anyway. In an introduction he wrote to a symposium of seals held at the museum he founded for his own collection, the late Eli Borowski described the inner logic of the collector, which might be compared to that of the big game hunter:2 stalking the prey, looking at the disembodied heads mounted on the wall, and recalling the hunt is what it's all about.

The Maltese Falcon: the fat man Kaspar Gutman, effete Joel Cairo, hard-as-nails Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and the rest, who pursue their prey for years, discover it is dross, lash out at each other, and then relaunch their crusade. To see fools on a fool's errand, trying to capture water in their fingers and thereby touch the past, somehow living, possibly eternally, and in the process perhaps achieve a sense of oneness with that which is somehow greater than themselves is utterly pathetic and yet utterly human. Fakery is a kind of all too human tragedy, the bilateral symmetry of buyer and seller, of con artist and sucker, at which we should express a similarly human sense of amusement (or schadenfraude) and then look away in dismay and embarrassment. In this sense, fakes are not bad, merely pathetic.

But we must make a distinction between the big-timers - whose names we all know and whose representatives may well be in the audience collecting evidence to sue my ass - and the small-timers. My friend David Ilan correctly points out to me that these are wholly different phenomena. The small-timers desire, above all, a sense of participation as opposed to the sense of possession and control that the big-timers display in abundance. The big-timers are almost by definition adversaries of archaeology, whatever the ultimate disposition of their collections, since they are a direct cause of massive looting and faking in the present. The effects of small-timers, everyone's Aunt Millie who wants to have a lamp from the Holy Land on the mantle in Des Moines, a memento of a trip, may be no less disastrous in the sense that archaeological sites must be mined for whole vessels to satisfy the market. Small-timers also keep petty forgers of coins and scarabs and tzachkas in business throughout the tourist-saturated world.

But the small-timers are collectors of memories, not of power, and they are potentially educable about the non-renewability of archaeological resources. But their needs must be taken into consideration: their desire to participate, to understand, in tangible ways that only material culture provides. Dispatching study collections to every church and synagogue might be one way to address this need, but in the capitalist world everyone has the right to personally own such things if he so desires.

For some, the goal of embracing fakes is a continuation of the roller coaster ride, fortune and glory, another write up in the Illustrated London News, leading to more grants and intellectual immortality. This might be called the Schliemann/Dorak Gambit. For others, seeing every unprovenanced artifact come down the pike is a sad sort of crap game, sorting through the haystack in search of that one needle or spinning straw into gold like Rumpelstiltskin. We could call this the Mendenhall-Lambert-Mulder I Want to Believe/Completion Backwards Principle. David Ilan also points to the Easy Way Forward/No Muss, No Fuss Method, where significant, ostensibly meaningful artifacts may be discussed without having to resort to the mess of excavation and context. There is also simple greed; Oscar White Muscarella documented very nicely the rat lines that connect thieves and forgers with collectors and museums. Perhaps this could be called the Safer on Park Avenue/Odessa File Program.

What is the goal of scholarly cooperation with collectors and ultimately forgers? Is it a feeble effort to find a kabalistic combination that will unlock all the secrets of the world or a means to hang out with rich folks, see some cool stuff, and cop a ride on the yacht? Or is it everything in between, a spectrum of intellectual curiosity, practical accommodation, and moral compromises that are as human as the urge to possess that grips the collector? The kind word for this may ultimately be prostitution, where we are reduced to merely arguing about the price. But the edifice of scholarship is shaky enough without the introduction of falsehoods and with the deliberate exercise of power over scholars by collectors.

But finally, as if to introduce an inevitable moral twist, there are genuine orphans of history, real, unprovenanced artifacts whose existence is no fault of their own and whose study will bring genuine enlightenment. In a recent essay, Mark Geller points to Jewish incantation bowls from Iraq, virtually the only material correlate from millennia of exile in that country.3 Without them, there is nothing. Are scholars not to study them? Or should perhaps scholars politely decline to study those things that are obviously too good to be true? How can we distinguish between what is necessary and useful and what is merely vain?

To say that only absolutism about unprovenanced artifacts is the only thing preventing scholars from eagerly swan-diving down a slippery slope may be technically correct. But this is a moral commentary on a discipline that cannot make discriminating judgments. Without the linkages to politics, and most importantly, economics (and hence, the capability to command the mining of more objects and the production of more fakes), studying unprovenanced artifacts would merely be a question of professional reputation and thereby of no interest to virtually anyone besides scholars' tenure committees and mothers.

The politics of fakes is less a question of politics per se than product placement, that is to say, salesmanship. Having isolated a small series of controversial issues (from an ever narrowing constellation), the faker of Joash appears to have attempted to imitate familiar objects, literary genres, and techniques. Joash is a knock off of Tell Dan (better looking, better made, more directly Biblical, etc.), whose roll-out took more than a year, while the James Ossuary shows that Jesus sells at any time. Fakes that bring people closer to sources of faith are that much more powerful talismans. Perhaps this is the Jerusalem Syndrome that Yuval Goren will be speaking about in his talk

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(back)  1Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Illuminations," Essays and Reflections , edited by Hannah Arendt, pp. 217-251. Schocken, New York, 1968.Originally published in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung V, 1 1936.

(back)  2Elie Borowski. Introduction to the History of the Seal Collection of the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem. In Seals and Sealing in the Ancient Near East, Proceedings of the Symposium Held on September 2, 1993, Jerusalem, Israel, edited by Joan Goodnick Westenholz, 11-22. Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem 1995.

(back)  3Mark Geller. Spies, Thieves and Cultural Heritage. Institute of Jewish Studies University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT. Copyright 1999-2003 UCL.