Why We Still Believe in Fakes

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An interesting story, with some pre-Christian overtones, has been simmering in the back of my mind since I first saw it yesterday. The Brooklyn Museum of Art is going forward with a show that will highlight the fact that one third of their Coptic sculptures are fakes.

“A third of the Coptic sculptures at the Brooklyn Museum of Art are modern fakes. Its collection of late Egyptian sculpture was, until now, the second largest in North America. Brooklyn curator Dr Edna Russmann, who is concluding a study of the works, warns that other museums which acquired Coptic sculptures in the past 50 years are likely to face similar problems.”

The “Coptic” era generally refers to the time of early Christian dominance in Egypt (and the decline of pre-Christian religion), from the 4th century until the Arab invasion of the late seventh century. Works from this era are highly prized for their insights into early Christianity and the transitions between Christian and pagan eras of Egypt. It is because of this eagerness by curators for early Christian treasures that a presumably large number of fakes were easily distributed and sold in the sixties and seventies. Many of them placing a heavy (and often historically incorrect) emphasis on Christian imagery.

“The fakes were mainly bought in the 1960s and 70s, and can be traced back to major antiquities dealers in New York and in Switzerland, to where they were shipped from Egypt. Dr Russmann believes that the dismissal of these works will encourage scholars to “re-evaluate Coptic art”. What is striking about the fakes is that they place a greater emphasis on Christian iconography than the authentic works. This reflects market demand for such imagery in Europe and North America.”

In addition to the ten outright fakes, several other authentic pieces show evidence of modern alterations. Fewer than ten works seem wholly untouched. Worse, scholars have known about these fakes since the seventies and this is the first time the general public will hear about the “Coptic controversy”.

Why the secrecy? Reputation mainly. Many museums in the past have dealt with Coptic fakes by quietly “retiring” them from display, avoiding scandal and bad publicity for their curators. Another motivation (largely left unspoken), is that if a large number of Christian-oriented Coptic sculptures are found to be fakes, it could spell trouble for the current narrative about the cultural dominance of Coptic Christianity in Egypt, and the decline of Egyptian paganism. While the pagan temples were closed in 384 ce, it is known that Egyptian paganism was active well into the sixth century. Indigenous Egyptian religion was still troubling to monotheists (Muslim, this time) in the 10th century, and the remaining physical remnants still trouble some extremists today.

Whatever the reason for the hush-hush, this is a brilliant example of how bad ideas and forgeries manage to survive even in the supposedly hostile environment of a museum filled with academics and scholars. An eagerness to fulfill a desire for a certain sort of object, or to validate a theory, creates a blindness to the possibility that what we have obtained is too good to be true. Perhaps this openness by the Brooklyn Museum could open the floodgates of related fakes and “alterations”, and could cause some scholars to reevaluate the Coptic era in Egypt.