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Book Reviews

FAKING

THE ANCIENT ANDES

Karen 0. Bruhns Nancy L. Kelker

Book1

 

 

book2INTRODUCTION: FAKING ANDEAN ART

 

Originally we planned a single comprehensive volume dealing with fakes, for­geries, and forgers from all across the ancient Americas, but as the project neared completion, it became evident that the scope of the problem of false antiq­uities and their counterfeiters was much larger than could be dealt justice in a sin­gle book; Mesoamerica and the Andes required their own separate volumes. Faking the Ancient Andes, like its companion volume on Mesoamerica, is an in-depth look at forgeries of ancient South American art, the history of this industry in the Andes, materials and techniques of manufacture specific to this region, and of course, the South American master artisans who produce the goods sold by dealers around the world as authentic antiquities.

Because of their relatively greater distance from North American and European markets and scholarship, the forgers active in South America are generally less well known than their counterparts in Mexico and Central America; they are, nonethe­less, as inventive, crafty, and as prodigious in their output as forgers who reside near­er to our borders. If anything, distance from the major American and European markets, coupled with a dearth of art historical scholarship (and, if truth be told, relatively little archaeological scholarship as compared with that for Mesoamerica) on the various South American cultures, has been a boon to forgers, if not necessar­ily raising the prices the middlemen will pay. But most importantly, the collecting and dealing communities have only the vaguest understanding of the Andean cul­tures; their ignorant bliss makes passage of even the most egregious forgeries con­siderably easier. In short, the average American has no knowledge of any Andean culture before the Inca. Indeed, many antiquities, real and faux, being offered for sale in galleries and on the Internet are identified simply as "pre-Incan," a label guar­anteed to cloak a multitude of sins.

The history of antiquities forgery in the Andes does not offer the scholar the wealth of original documentation that is to be found in Mexico—unfortunately, no Peruvian or Colombian counterpart to Leopoldo Batres 1 seems to have been hot on the trail of Andean forgers early on. Yet the antiquities forgery industry in the Andes is surely as old and as ignoble as that in Mesoamerica. Certainly the large numbers of "Inca"-style wooden kenos manufactured during the Colonial period point to an early and robust market for antiquities. Other anecdotal evidence comes from the very early and widespread looting of archaeological sites in Peru—for example, the near eradication of the Huaca del Sol pyramid at Moche in 1602 by Spanish treas­ure hunters (disguised as "miners"). As always, where there is a market demand for antiquities, enterprising suppliers will step in to provide product either through increased looting activity or through the manufacture of new "antiquities." Writing in 1886, William Henry Holmes notes that in the large shipments of spurious antiq­uities being brought into the United States, "Peru is hardly less fully represented [than Mexico], as the factories in that country have been at work for a number of years" (1886b, 264).

Still, 122 years after Holmes, the problem of Precolumbian art forgeries contin­ues unabated and little noted, though substantially amplified in volume, and even more so since Ekholm (1964) wrote his more modern appraisal of the situation. This is a particularly astonishing situation considering that over the same period of time, considerable progress has been made in the discovery and debunking of European forgeries, thanks to the efforts of scholar-detectives such as Oscar White Muscarella, Michel van Rijn, Arthur Brand, and Jerome M. Eisenberg (among many others). Why, then, has so little progress been made in the field of Americanist fake-busting? The answer to this question, the authors believe, lies in the distinction made between the civilized and the primitive, and the relative aesthetic (and mon­etary) value placed on the art and artifacts of each. Inasmuch as the art of the Classical world is the foundation and continuing inspirational source of European (civilized) art, its value and aesthetic merit are a given. However, the same assump­tion is not made about the art of the Prehispanic cultures of the New World, or the rest of the so-called "non-Western" world—the politically correct substitution for the older "primitive" but still a term that speaks of separation into "us" and "the other."

The assumption of un-art-worthiness has long been applied to the work of Native American peoples. In 1896 Aby Warburg, a German national, visited the United States and made a trip out to the American Southwest to visit the Pueblos; there he was to have, unbeknownst to him, the sort of "authentic" experience tailor-made for railroad tourists by Thomas Keams and other trading-post entrepreneurs. Presuming himself unable to speak directly with the natives—as he did not speak any indigenous language and it never occurred to him that some might speak Spanish (or English)—Warburg launched full speed into supposition mode, invent­ing meanings for decorative motifs found on the reproduction Sikyatki pottery the Pueblo ceramists were making for the tourist market. After identifying what he presumes to be a "bird hieroglyph" on one of these pots, Warburg compounds suppo­sition into cosmology:

The bird plays an important part in Indian mythical perception, as anyone familiar with the Leatherstocking Tales knows. Apart from the devotion it receives, like every other animal, as a totem, as an imaginary ancestor, the bird commands a special devotion in the context of the burial cult. It seems even that a thieving bird-spirit belonged to the fundamental representa­tions of the mythical fantasies of the prehistoric Sikyatki. The bird has a place in idolatrous cults for its feathers. The Indians have made a special prayer instrument out of small sticks—bahos; tied with feathers, they are placed on fetish altars and planted on graves. According to the authorita­tive explanations of the Indians, the feathers act as winged entities bearing the Indians' wishes and prayers to their demoniac essences in nature. (Preziosi 1998, 182)

For Warburg, the Pueblo peoples were the essential "primitive": ignorant and childlike in their superstitions and idolatry (not to mention coterminous with indigenous people from a very distant part of the United States, as described by James Fenimore Cooper some 50 years previously!). This attitude toward art outside the European tradition was pretty much a constant in twentieth-century art histo­ry. As Meyer Shapiro notes some three decades later:

In the past, a great deal of primitive work, especially representation, was regarded as artless even by sensitive people; what was valued were mainly the ornamentation and the skill of primitive industry. It was believed that primitive arts were childlike attempts to represent nature—attempts dis­torted by ignorance and by an irrational content of the monstrous and grotesque. (Preziosi 1998, 147)

Of course, Shapiro, writing in 1953, goes on to point out how much that attitude had changed in his time with the development of modern styles and resulting new ways of looking at art:

As a result of this new approach, all the arts of the world, even the draw­ings of children and psychotics, have become accessible on a common plane of expressive and form-creating activity. Art is now one of the strongest evidences of the basic unity of mankind. (Preziosi 1998, 148)

By grouping the arts of the non-Western world with that of children and psy­chotics (two groups whose creations are also not considered real art), and by link­ing them as expressive and form-creating activities rather than as aesthetic activities, Shapiro, too, dismisses "primitive" art but with less incendiary language than that used by others he criticizes as "in the past." Unfortunately, such attitudes linger to the present day, particularly among those who study the art of the Western tradi­tion. Not so many years ago, Kelker was asked by a Renaissance art historian from a nationally noted university to explain why Precolumbian works should be consid­ered art at all since they were not like works hanging on the gallery wall, the works she studied. This bias against the "primitive" is one of the reasons that art history and museum studies seem to be so little concerned with authenticity in Precolumbian art. If it is not "real art," what does it matter if the example is a fake?

A second complicating factor is the rise of the "New Art History" which, since its inception some 40 years ago in the hallowed halls of certain left and right coast universities, has moved ever further from the study of the object (connoisseurship) and from rational exploration of the cultures producing those objects. The focus of the New Art History is on theory and methodology (as long as it isn't formalism, the tool of connoisseurship); as one newly minted Ph.D. from one of these institutions once remarked to Kelker, "Nobody deals with the object anymore!" Of course, Luddites such as the authors might think that takes all the fun out of it, but the more problematic result is a whole generation of art historians largely unable to deal intel­ligently with the primary evidence of their field, much less tell the real from the faux.

This approach and its ramifications for the museum world are perhaps best illustrated by Donald Preziosi, who in an article titled "The Art of Art History" in his anthology of the same name (1998, 511-512)), compares the museum to a novel or story:

In essence, both novel and museum evoke and enact a desire for panoptic or panoramic points of view from which it may be seen that all things may indeed fit together in a true, natural, real, or proper order. Both modes of magic realism labour at convincing us that each of us could "really" occu­py privileged synoptic positions, despite all the evidence to the contrary in daily life, and in the face of domination and power.

Exhibition and art historical practice (both of which are subspecies of museography) are thus genres of imaginative fiction. Their practices of composition and narration constitute the "realities" of history chiefly through the use of prefabricated materials and vocabularies—tropes, syn­tactic formulas, methodologies of demonstration and proof, and tech­niques of stagecraft and dramaturgy. Such fictional devices are shared with other genres of ideological practice such as organized religion and the entertainment—that is, the containment—industries.

Certainly if one approaches the museum and its contents as works of fiction, then the fact that some items are more fictional than others becomes irrelevant: one story of history is as good as the next. Thus it should come as no surprise to the reader that those reliquariums called antiquities galleries and those entertainment venues called museums should be loaded with forgeries. Or that exhibition after exhibition, catalog after catalog, illustrated art book after illustrated art book, should all promulgate the most egregious forgeries as if they were something other than proof of the cupidity and insanity of the art market and its customers.

Still, in the hope that the pendulum of art history, having swung over time away from the contextual study of the object to the polytheoretical extreme of object-nega­tion, will someday find a point of harmonious balance, the authors offer this volume to all who are now, and who might become, interested in the problem of fakes and forgeries of Andean art. In doing so, we would like to emphasize that nearly all of our examples have been previously published in scholarly publications, newspapers, or on websites. The individuals identified and the situations described are genuine and widely known. Other materials, of course, come from our own experiences with law-enforcement agencies, government agencies, and, as well, smugglers, dealers, collec­tors, and others of similarly ignoble nature. Archaeology and art history have very active information networks, especially with regard to scandalous behavior. We have utilized these when they point to an emerging problem or a problem that, for vari­ous reasons, is not going to emerge into the light of day for some time. We have con­firmed as best we can the details of these accounts and used them judiciously, dis­carding what could not be verified. Many people working in the Precolumbian art world are under considerable pressure from politicians, well-heeled donors, universi­ty administrators, and museum trustees to ignore common decency as well as feder­al and international law. They risk losing their jobs if they are honest. We would espe­cially like to thank a number of these brave people who revealed to us the dirty little secrets of the Andean forgeries game. (We promised never to breathe their names in public because, as everyone knows, presidents and directors tend toward paranoid and sometimes vindictive behavior, especially when they know they are in the wrong.) We would also like to note again that in these two volumes, we have barely scratched the surface of the forgeries game. At the risk of being bores ourselves, we would like to remind our readers that every single style we have ever heard of has been faked—even styles you would think no one in his/her right mind would both­er with. For example, Momil pottery, a style known only from sherds and bits and pieces from a single excavation, has been faked! This style, once thought to represent America's first ceramics and found in a place that has been very difficult and danger­ous to get to for most of the past 30 years or so, still has considerable appeal as the "Earliest Ever." Despite the fact that that's pretty much the only possible appeal it could have, someone, realizing that "early" equates with market share, proceeded to satisfy that demand for these difficult-to-acquire antiquities—with fake potsherds and all! No money-making possibility is ever ignored in the great and wonderful world of looting, smuggling, and vending ancient art.

In this volume we have dealt primarily with the Andes. We have not attempted to cover Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, the Amazon, or the Guineas; nor most of lower Central America—not that these areas are free from forgery. Far from it, and we could cite chapter and verse. But there is simply too much material and far too much good material in our focus area. And not all of this is shiny new While having the pleasure of corresponding with Zenon Gallegos Ramirez, one of the foremost living artists of the Nazca tradition, we went through the catalogs from a major auction house from the late 1960s through the mid-1990s, looking at the Nazca pieces offered up to the market. In our opinion (and that of the several southern Peruvian experts we consulted), perhaps 70 to 85 percent of the pieces were "iffy," if not downright ludicrous. Apparently they all sold, and many were resold over the years. A fair number have ended up in museums too. Well, that's Nazca, a flashy style much loved by collectors, especially if a little sex or a little more realistic modeling can be added. But we also ran into forgeries from the nineteenth century, some maybe even earlier, and, of course, many from the early twentieth century.

With the exception of those entirely made-up styles which tend to wax and wane in the market over time, the efforts of donor countries to protect their heritage from First World marauders has only spurred the creation of new forgeries. The human quest for prestige and conspicuous consumption being what it is, there is no end of people wanting exotic things to display on their mantlepiece or to trade for the supposed status of being a benefactor of culture to the local museum. No one, of course, mentions to that benefactor that his esteem has come at the price of the destruction of yet another ancient site or culture. Nor does anyone tell the self-important benefactor, so prideful of his possessions, that his collection consists of a great many fakes.

And, of course, the most outrageous forgeries do end up in exhibits and in museum collections. Despite all the hype by museum public relations departments about the preservation of art and culture, the truth is that museums are, in reality, business entities thinly disguised as cultural institutions. Moreover, the art and museum worlds are perhaps the least regulated of all businesses. The most casual reading of any issue of, say, The Art Newspaper, will show how fraud, forgery, and misrepresentation of all kinds—from the origin of objects to their supposed mean­ing and, above all, their value in dollars and cents—are standard operating proce­dure in the very lucrative art and antiquities market.4 However, that is well beyond the scope of this volume. What concerns us are the vast numbers of forged South American artifacts on display and in circulation and how these frauds have and con­tinue to affect scholarship, making a good deal of it nothing more than so much useless hot air. Our aim is to convince you, the reader, to open your eyes to the real­ities of the situation. Every country in Latin America prohibits the looting of ancient sites for treasure as well as the export of its past. And let us have no more yammering about those imaginary "old collections." We note with some glee that virtually everything on sale now is claimed to have been out of its country of origin before 1970, the date the American Association of Museums has pegged as the cut­off for ethically importing antiquities. We won't comment on this, even though Peru, Bolivia, and a host of other countries have prohibited the export of their past at least since the late 1900s (Mexico seems to have been the first, in 1829). Setting a date is a start and certainly better than the old "stolen fair and square" attitude; but considering that the flow of illegal (and fake) antiquities has increased exponen­tially since the 1970s, one can only surmise that many thousands of overloaded "treasure ships" left South American ports in 1969 and must have been tied up in traffic jams ever since! The awful truth is that enforcement efforts directed toward the suppliers (looters) and manufacturers (forgers) are targeting the wrong end of the business. Until all those well-heeled "benefactors" are rounded up like so many johns in a red-light district, very little is going to change in the art market. Thus, gentle reader, when you stare longingly at the beautiful figurine, the elegant vessel, or the dazzling golden artifact in the dealer's window, stop and think for a moment before you buy it. If it is authentic, you are as much a grave-robber as the huaquero who dug it up, and if it's not, then you are about to be swindled. Wouldn't you real­ly rather buy a nice Andy Warhol?