Fakes: An Historical Perspective
inNovember 30, 2007 - 2:53pm
For as long as mankind has used his hands to create useful, intricate objects; as long as the mysteries of the natural world have been pondered, and tools or instruments made with the intent to tame or investigate that world; as long as a creative soul has sought to gift kin with a meaningful experience through art, or the warrior to gift himself with notoriety amongst his peers, there have been collectors with a penchant to own objects connected to other people, places and times.
Because the common folk of the past were mostly busy collecting things they thought they could potentially eat, assembling an impressive collection of objects historical, beautiful or rare, was primarily the pursuit of the wealthy. But once the acquisition of specific types of objects from the past became the well known avocation of not only the wealthy but ordinary folks as well, folks who wished to surround themselves with beautiful things from a bygone era, some quick wits used this knowledge to find their own calling; enter the forger, the faker, and the bogus candlestick maker.
Today, all collecting fields are being seriously impacted by contemporary fakes and reproductions. Fine art, jewelry, antiques and collectibles are all equally affected. It is convenient to believe that this is a new, rather sudden occurrence initiated by a surge in the popularity of collecting, but the truth is that a netherworld of scamps and brigands, eager to knowingly sell the worthless to the unwary, has always existed.
Today’s collectors aren't the only ones who have had to face the problem. Literature exists from the Ming period of China on the subject of the connoisseurship of ancient items. Particular concern is expressed in ancient tomes about the fakes of that era. The Chinese word for connoisseurship is made of two elements bound together. Shang, 'to judge by quality' and jian, 'distinguish truth from falsity.' One critic of that long-ago time complained that 90% of the expensive paintings being acquired by the wealthy for their collections were fakes. And in Italy one of the earliest guidebooks compiled for the use of coin collector's during the Renaissance devoted an entire chapter "On the frauds which are perpetrated on modern coins to make them look antique." Written by Enea Vico in 1555, it outlines a variety of methods to detect frequently seen types of coin forgeries.
Of course, the great age of collecting that we are most aware of today, is that of the nineteenth century. This was a time when archeological expeditions raised awareness, and romanticized the classical world of antiquity. Well-publicized discoveries of ancient artifacts collided with the industrial revolution and the nouveau riche, resulting in a new acquisitive paradigm. Both the ability to collect and the popularity of doing so, merged.
It shouldn't be surprising to find, then, that this period of time was an age of faking on a grand scale. It also is the best example of what faking can do to those who collect and those who make their living selling the authentic. Toward the end of the Victorian Era, uncertainty over what was real and what wasn't led to the collapse of whole collecting fields. Eventually only the scholarly dealer and the veteran collector dared participate in some fields, because certain classes of objects were just too untrustworthy. This was the age that brought us the notion of 'provenance' and some of the first consumer protection laws.
When a shop owner discovers an item is not authentic, either through research or by someone else pointing it out to them, they sometimes feel embarrassed and discouraged. They shouldn’t, because participation in a pursuit as varied as that of the collecting world almost insures that some mistakes will be made. No one is perfect. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York owns a fake Rembrandt. A fake 'Etruscan' sarcophagus was purchased in 1871 by the British Museum and remained on display until 1935. Even the experts sometimes get taken.
The thing to do when you find you've bought a fake or contemporary reproduction believing it to be old or authentic is to acknowledge the mistake and learn from it. You don't want to make your mistake someone else’s by selling the fake item as authentic. Knowing you have spent your money unwisely on a fake, and trying to 'get your money back' by selling it to an unsuspecting customer causing them to waste their money is unacceptable.
Considering how the selling of fakes, reproductions and 'knock-offs' runs rampant in today’s world, particularly on the Web, everyone should try to at least learn which types of items to be wary of. Little Red Riding Hood cookie jars, for instance, have been faked for years. If you don't know how to recognize a real LRRH jar, then the one you see being offered on a table at the local flea market for $75 might not be such a bargain, after all. It would be much cheaper to cut out the middleman and purchase one direct from the wholesale supplier, if that were what you want to own. When purchasing stock for your shop keep in mind that these days even McCoy pottery might not be the real McCoy.
Regardless of the current heightened public interest in collecting, encouraged by regularly televised appraisal events, where audiences are bowled over by the announced value of something rescued from a dumpster, or local news reports of events such as an astronomical price paid at Christies for a hank of Elvis hair, history illustrates for us how quickly attitudes and buying habits can change, if given reason to do so. Offering a Web location where knowledgeable dealers are known to congregate and collectors feel they can shop for their collections with some measure of trust may be more important than most people realize. Not only for the short term, but for the future of the industry, as the Web matures. If the nineteenth century should teach us anything about the subject, it's that when perfidy reigns and all faith is lost in those who ply this business, the act of collecting will lose its shine for many and vast numbers of collectors will abandon the effort and shift their interest elsewhere. History can, and does, repeat itself. The trick is to see the parallel and to remember what's been forgotten.