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.

Giving Will Get Tougher

A few days ago reported that the Obama administration is moving forward to limit the value of charitable deductions for wealthy taxpayers in the fiscal 2011 year budget. Specifically, this would limit the benefits of itemized deductions to 28% for couples earning $250,000 or more or individuals earning $200,000 or more. Clearly this impacts small business whose companies are set up as a sub chapter S where incomes passes through the business to the individual tax payer.

Obama attempted this earlier as a means for partially funding the health care proposals. The White House believes these new tax policies would raise more than $291-billion from 2011 to 2020. With the tax rates for wealthiest Americans increasing from 35% to 39.6% this will be a double whammy to dampen their enthusiasm for charitable donations. Non-profits are understandably extremely concerned since the economic downturn has already severely impacted both their operating budgets and projected gifts in art and money.

Americans have traditionally given more than any other nationality. (Note as individuals Americans give twice as much as the British who were second. As a country, 2006 figures indicate that the USA ranks 21st as a percentage of GNP in giving). There will be some big fights on capitol hill as non-profits maneuver for survival against a Congress and Administration try to fund their agenda. Regardless of your politics it appears that Obama will deliver on his campaign promise of change in your America.

FBI Announces Return of Pre-Columbian Artifacts

Printed below is the FBI press release announcing the return of Pre-Columbian artifacts identified to be from cultures in Peru and Ecuador. Some sites on the internet picked up on the press release and repeated it calling the man a smuggler. But the FBI press release never identified the man as a smuggler and never revealed the legal basis for the seizure of the property. There have been questions raised on the internet with no response offered by anyone directly involved with the case.

"FBI Announces Return of Pre-Columbian Artifacts to Peru and Ecuador
John V. Gillies, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Miami Field Office today announced the return of 153 pre-Columbian artifacts to the countries of Peru and Ecuador. In a ceremony this morning, the artifacts were officially returned to the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments. Representing Peru from the Peruvian Consulate in Miami was Jaime Arrospide, Deputy Consul General. Representing Ecuador from the Ecuadorian Consulate in Miami were Juan Carlos Toledo, Consul General, and Maria Veronica Endara, Vice Consul General.
Pre-Columbian art consists of pottery, baskets, jewelry, carvings, figurines, and sculptures that pre-date the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. The pre-Columbian artifacts in this matter are considered by experts to range from 500 to 3,200 years old.
In April 2009, these artifacts were recovered from a retirement community in Avon Park, Florida. They were found in the home of a resident after he passed away. The FBI’s Art Crime Team was called in and took possession of the artifacts. Working with Florida International University (FIU), 141 of the items were determined to be from areas inside the borders of modern-day Peru and 12 pieces were determined to be from sites located in modern-day Ecuador. The artifacts were dated ranging from approximately 1200 B.C. until approximately 1500 A.D.
Special Agent in Charge John V. Gillies stated, “These artifacts represent the cultural heritage of Peru and Ecuador. They can never be replaced and should be on display for many to see, not locked away. We are honored to be able to return these artifacts to their rightful owners.”
The FBI established its Art Crime Team in 2004. The team is composed of 13 FBI special agents, each responsible for addressing art and cultural property crime cases in particular geographic regions. An Art Crime Team member is assigned to the Miami Field Office. Since 2004, the team has recovered more than 2,600 items in cultural property at a value of over $140 million."

We will try to follow up on this case to try and answer some of the outstanding questions, which should give collectors and museums some concerns.