Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Book Review - Some Ideas for Your Library

I have discussed authentication before; however, nothing that I have written in the past or cited as a reference is more polarizing than the two new books by Nancy Kelker and Karen Bruhns. The authors second book Faking the Ancient Andes will be discussed at a later date.

Faking Ancient Mesoamerica, Nancy L. Kelker and Karen O. Bruhns, 2010, Left Coast Press available on Amazon. Norman Hammond of Boston University wrote "Enlightening but frightening, entertaining yet scholarly, this book will give collectors and curators of unprovenienced Mesoamerican art pause for thought..." Presumably the authors wrote the following on the back cover. "More important, they describe the system whereby these objects get made, purchased, authenticated, and placed in major museums as well as the complicity of forgers, dealers, curators, and collectors in this system." As an authenticator, appraiser, and dealer I will probably not be included on this Christmas list. Regardless I think this book is important for all involved with Pre-columbian art to at least hear and consider the arguments.

It is unfortunate that so much good research has to be clouded in pontification, self righteous indignation, snide remarks, and unsupported facts. Although the authors bring some good information to the project, their agenda undermines any pretense of constructive thought. Napalm is not always the solution to every problem. But in this case fry all the collectors, dealers, and curators and many of your problems with authenticity will be solved. Clearly we can't begin again and we are now where we are and solutions don't start with blowing up the entire system.

Suggesting the Michael Kan didn't have time to be concerned with provenance (p.49) ignores the complexity of the acquisition process and marginalizes the efforts and opinions of outside experts recommending this purchase. And for a final insult for the curators: "For the ambitious collection-building curator, like Kan or Berrin (Kathleen Berrin de Young Museum San Francisco), an art work's lack of provenance - generally indicative of a looted or smuggled piece - becomes, in an odd way, synonymous with authenticity. " This very silly unsupported gratuitous comment reveals the agenda of the authors and unfortunately undermines their credibility.

The authors seemed obsessed with the number 40. “Forty percent of Colima dogs are fake (see Chapter 7) according to Robert Pickering (1994.4), and Thomas Hoving (1996,17) estimates that 40 percent, or about 20,000 of the 50,000 or so works he examined while director at the Met were fakes.” (Chapter 3 p.45). The number pops up again later: “The famous Colima dogs, effigies of fat doggies of the ixcuintli type – a well known foodstuff- may have been the first to be forged in quantity, their manufacture beginning in the 1870’s or 1880’s (Figure 7-6). Dr. Robert Pickering (then at the Denver Museum of Natural History) began a study of these canines in the early 1990s and came to several unpopular conclusions: “I would estimate that at least 40% of the Colima dogs we see all over the world are not Precoluumbian….. I have documentation for the fact that hundreds of the little dogs were shipped out of west coast Mexico in the late 19th century. There was a flourishing business going even then” (1994,4). And finally: "The few surveys undertaken on the percentages of fakes in museum collections peg the number of fraudulent pieces at 40 percent, suggesting that some 60 percent may be authentic." I know Bob Pickering and am familiar with his work, which I believe to be very important in providing a new approach in the authentication of objects from West Mexico. The authors have trivialized Pickering's work by quoting him out of context. Pickering is a serious scholar and deserves better treatment. Some context for this remark or even a few sentences describing Pickering's work would have helped considerably.

Authentication is a slow deliberate methodical process that encompasses multiple experts and careful analysis of the data. To compare now with twenty, fifty, or a hundred years ago is irrelevant. We know more now and we must all deal with the problems in the present with the tools that are available. Art historians, conservators, scientific testers, and authenticators must all come together with a data set that will either support or will not support authenticity. Data that is unable to detect modern construction is not the basis for authenticating an object as being an antiquity. Not being able to authenticate does not mean that an object is modern. Sometimes no answer is the answer. And contrary to the agenda of Kelker and Bruhns some times archaeologists don't have all the answers.

Read the book. It does bring up important issues that must be considered by collectors, curators, scholars, dealers, and authenticators. But before you decide to go out your 20th floor office window, understand there is a rational process of authentication that is available. One of the few bright spots in this book is the fact that the authors have recognized the talent of Mark Rasmussen ( in the authentication process. Dramatic insults like calling dealers alley cats or labeling curators as either "tame curators" or "museum curators" might sell some books, but it does nothing to create positive dialog and is at best self indulgent. Kelker and Bruhns have gained some notoriety but burned many bridges and that doesn't help anyone.

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