The ArtTrak blog has been created as a discussion forum for the website www.arttrak.com. Periodically ArtTrak also sends out Newsletters to their subscribers and this information after publication is also added to the blog. While much of the blog is devoted to African, Pre-Columbian, Oceanic, American Indian, and Folk Art, we are also very involved with appraisal and authentication issues. Your comments are welcome.
1. Santa Fe, New Mexico - My colleagues in Santa Fe are telling me that there is a sor sale sign in front of Bernard Ewell's office on Old Santa Fe Trail. Whether this is an indication of more heat from the Park West fiasco is a possibility. For the last several months I have been hearing that there is another show to fall in this case.
2. Brooklyn, New York: In reviewing the articles in this issue on authenticity I would be remiss if I failed to mention some of the examples that soem museums have set in taking responsibility for the mistakes their institutions have made over the years. A great example is the exhibition “Coptic Sculpture in the Brooklyn Museum”, which opened on 13 February 2009 and featured a number of examples of Coptic art in their collections that proved to be fake. This courage sends a strong message to patrons and the art world that Brooklyn will maintain the highest standards in their collections. Having said this and assumed the best I can't be sure that this move was not the result at least to some degree from pressure from Coptic experts.
3. Forbes Magazine 2008 : How to Spot a Fake is an excellent short article on methodology you might not have heard of except in technological discussions of art fraud. See the link:
A “copy” of one of the greatest African sculptures may be genuine, researchers believe
By Martin Bailey | From issue 213, May 2010
Published online 4 May 10 (News)
london. The Olokun Head, exhibited as a copy of one of the greatest and most mysterious African works of art, is to be investigated at the British Museum after the closure of its current Ife show. Scholars consider that Nigerian Ife bronzes are only exceeded in quality by works made later in neighbouring Benin.
The original of the Olokun Head has been assumed to be lost since 1948; the modern replica is currently on display in London until 6 June. “Kingdom of Ife” and the head will tour later in the year to the US (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in September; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in February 2011; the Indianapolis Museum of Art in July 2011; and New York’s Museum for African Art in November 2011).
On its discovery, exactly a century ago, the life-size Olokun Head was considered too great a masterpiece to have been created by African hands, a reflection of attitudes at the time. Some European scholars even believed it to be evidence of the lost civilisation of Atlantis. It was not subjected to detailed study until 1948, when it left Nigeria for the first time, for an exhibition at the British Museum. Following scientific research, it was concluded that the head was not the original, but a replica which had been made to surreptitiously replace it, with the original sold to a foreign collector.
The story began in 1910, when German anthropologist Leo Frobenius heard about an ancient sculpted head that had been buried in a sacred palm grove just outside the city of Ife. The shrine was dedicated to Olokun, goddess of the sea.
In his book The Voice of Africa, Frobenius recounts how one night he organised the digging up of the head, paying the guardian of the site £6 and a bottle of whisky. It is believed that the bronze head, which was probably made around 1400, depicts an ancient Ooni (king).
Some days later, the British colonial administration intervened and seized the head, on the grounds that it was sacred and should be returned to the grove. There it apparently remained until 1934, when it was taken to the palace of the Ooni for safekeeping. Four years later the Ooni transferred the bronze to the newly established Ife Museum.
In 1948, when the Olokun Head travelled to the British Museum, it was examined by specialists Leon Underwood and William Fagg, who declared it to be a replica, mainly because of the casting technique.
They believed the head sent to London was produced by a modern sand-casting technique (from a plaster mould), not by the traditional lost-wax process. There was apparently evidence of two seam marks and the surface appeared not to have been chased, although Frobenius had recorded that it had been.
An analysis of the metal content (zinc-copper, with traces of lead) showed that it was identical to an authentic Ife head in the British Museum. However, Underwood and Fagg argued that the faker must have melted down damaged ancient sculptures, to obtain the correct alloy. Frank Willett, the greatest specialist on Ife art, later concurred that it was a modern replica—and it has always been exhibited as such.
What then happened to the original? One theory is that when Frobenius had to relinquish the head in 1910, he commissioned a replica and smuggled out the original, although time to create the technically complex copy would have been very short.
Another possibility is that the replica was created at some point between 1910 and 1934, while it remained buried in the Olokun shrine (or between 1934 and 1938, when it was at the Ooni’s palace), to sell to a European or North American collector. But African art was then relatively cheap (even Benin bronzes, which can now go for millions of pounds, usually sold for under £100 until the 1950s), and creating the replica would have been expensive. If the original did go to a serious collector before 1938, it is surprising that it has never re-emerged.
Until now specialists have accepted that the Olokun Head from the Ife Museum is a replica, but a new theory is about to be tested: could the object be the original, dating from around 1400? If so, it might overturn our knowledge about early bronze casting in Africa.
West African art specialist Nigel Barley, a former British Museum curator, briefly examined the Olokun Head in January, and says that he now believes it may well be the original. He told The Art Newspaper: “It didn’t ring alarm bells shouting out that this is a fake. It also seems curious that someone went to so much trouble to create a replica, rather than just stealing it.”
Enid Schildkrout, an expert at New York’s Museum for African Art and curator of the current exhibition, concurs. She points out that if the object on show is a replica, then “it is surprising that the original has never reappeared”.
How the head will be tested
When “Kingdom of Ife” closes on 6 June, the Olokun Head will be tested at the British Museum, with the consent of its owner, Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments. This will include x-ray fluorescence, which involves aiming a beam at the metal. By studying the emitted rays, it should be possible to determine the precise metal content.
The interior of the hollow head will be examined microscopically, to search for tiny traces of residues from the mould left during casting. This could tell us about the casting process, and it might even be possible to date samples of material with thermo-luminescence testing.
The outer surface will be examined to see whether modern tools or abrasives have been used. An analysis of corrosion could also make it possible to determine whether the head had at some point been buried underground.
Note: This story has been going on for some time and as yet we do not have definite word one way or another. Currently, this head is traveling throughout the U.S. in the exhibition: “Kingdom of Ife" The head was to be examined at the British Museum after the exhibition; however, to date I have not seen any data that has been published. It should be noted that this issue is one of authenticity and not repatriation which is now being debated with respect to objects from Benin. If this Ife head proves to be a fake, then the real one has been stolen and been replaced by this fake which has been on tour.
Each week I have clients call me, wanting to know if their artwork is authentic. Sometimes the process of determining authenticity is relatively simple.
Here are two tell tale signs that your art is a reproduction:
1. If you painting or print has the name of a museum written on the front or back, you are looking at a piece which was reproduced as part of the museum’s marketing strategy for a particular exhibition or reproduced as an example from their permanent collection. Sometimes these pieces are trickier than others. Sometimes the art is reproduced on canvas and framed; sometimes the “painting” will have a white border around it stating the date of the exhibition and the name of the museum. Even if this exhibition is deemed “old”, for example it was in the 1970s or 1980s, this does not mean that your print has great value. It is a still a mass produced print. The exception to this (and there are always exceptions), would be if you have one of these prints that was signed by the artist. I remember that Marc Chagall was present at least one of his later exhibitions in the 1980s, and actually signed mass produced posters. If you think your piece does have an original signature, look to point #2 below and examine it for the same pattern.
2. If you look closely at your art under a magnifying glass and see a tiny dot pattern which forms the image, sometimes seen as a moiré of dots, you have a four color offset print, a reproduction. Some of these images are printed on paper; others created on canvas. Some will have computer generated, three-dimensional brush strokes to make you think you have an original. Some of these images feature real, random flourishes of paint, brushed on top of the reproduction, also to make you think you have an original work.
The key to understanding your art is observation. It might take some time to recognize reproductions, but once you do, you can never go back. We’re always here to assist you when you have questions.
Skinner's Boston: American Indian and Ethnographic Art - January 15, 2011
Taking the long view the Loango tusk from lot 254 was a good buy at $2,963 even though it probably dated 40
years later than what was quoted in the catalog. The 5 1/2 inch janus New Guinea mortar from lot 305 was
also a goo buy at $1,185. The fifteen ledger drawings by Arapaho artist Mad Bull in 1883 or 1884 sold for
$62,805 in lot 379 are very fine and in my judgment should have sold higher. Finally an early style 3rd phase
Navajo blanket in lot 566 estimated at $5,000 to $7,000 sold for $213.300. This is strange. The condition on
this piece was very poor and because they placed a question mark in the description Skinners apparently was
unsure as to whether the red was cochineal. So far nobody that I have talked to understands why this blanket
sold for this price. Suffice it to say that two people wanted it and that for the moment is all that can be said.
Christies New York: Native American Art - January 18, 2011 - The sale total is $1,116,188 with 82 lots bought in out of 147. For whatever reason either estimates that were too aggressive or a rainy cold day in New York this was not a good event for Christies. Some fine objects were bought in. The sale was literally saved by two lots that almost brought in half the gross sales. The Wind River Shoshone painted elk hide in lot 121 sold for $146,500 with the commission and the Great Lakes 18th century hide shirt from lot 83 sold for $362,500 for a 2 lot total of $509,000. Undoubtedly the after sales sales will be brisk as the auction house tries to improve their position and buyers scramble for even better deals.