Are Fakes So Bad?

The spectacle of scholars authenticating and publishing unprovenanced artifacts is not simply pathetic but pernicious.

By Alexander H. Joffe
June 2004

In a famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin discusses the nature of the real and the unreal with terrible relevance for archaeology. As it became technologically possible to reproduce art works with greater precision and perfectly with the advent of photography in the mid-19th century, what was lost was something vital, what Benjamin called aura: "its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." Benjamin thought even the most perfect reproduction was depreciated, lacking authenticity. "The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object." 1

God knows what Benjamin would have thought of Adobe Photoshop, much less of Jar Jar Binks. But from Benjamin, we can extract without difficulty the most important lesson for archaeology: the necessity, the obligation to defend the real.

But having started with the sublime, the laws of physics demand we proceed directly to the ridiculous, an example that explains in precise terms the paradoxical psychological effect of fakes. In the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan delivers a tour de force performance in her justly celebrated deli scene. There she demonstrates to a disbelieving Billy Crystal exactly how to fake an orgasm, something that many of us no doubt found educational if not downright enlightening. But the key is not simply the ease with which the fake itself is generated, rather what comes afterward when a woman sitting at the next table leans forward to the waiter and says, "I'll have what she's having". Without knowing what is being sold, someone is buying. Fakery is both a supply and a demand side phenomenon, and each side requires explanation.

I suspect that antiquities fakers from Moses Shapira through the alleged misdeeds of Oded Golan are flattered by the comparison with Meg Ryan. The motivations seem, from the outside, to be relatively straightforward, ranging from money to the exercise of secret power. But in all cases there is a combination of both at work since the act of creating a fake is just that, something creative, which is unlike the act of making commodities that require less flair, panache, and daring, like aluminum, lawnmowers, or heroin. Or at least they don't require an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies. I must leave it to the courts to sort out matters of guilt or innocence, and to Neil Silberman and Yuval Goren as to the motives of the accused Oded Golan [who, unbeknownst to everyone, was apparently in the audience listening to this talk], whether he was some sort of Dr. Evil or just some poor schnook with tracing paper and a couple of chisels.

But money is only part of the answer; power is just as important. The importance in world history of having a laugh at someone else's expense has not been adequately explored. Seeing super-rich people waste their money is something the rest of us can all enjoy. But the systematic ability to manipulate scholars, the press and the public, and the all-encompassing sense of secret satisfaction that it generates should not be underestimated. But is this really so bad? Fakes that fool scholars have been around as long as there have been scholars, and they have always created a good amount of anti-intellectual satisfaction. Archaeological fakers are not the Unibomber.

Fakes do not work "for their own sake." Some fakes are obviously more successful than others. The impulse to create a talisman is powerful, and the talismanic appeal may be either secular or religious. Either way, the aesthetics must be situated. Fakes are not a distortion of some untainted and one-sided process where the past creates and scholars interpret. Archaeological fakes are not contaminants in a pure stream of history; they are highly revealing trace elements that demonstrate to us how the past and present interact. Fakes tell us, for better and for worse, not only how the past is valued in the present, in part as a commodity, but also how they function as a system of terms or frame of reference, understood as a living thing by living people. Only in this useful, but historically attenuated, sense do fakes possess an aura.

Most astonishing is the abnormal psychology of collectors. Benjamin commented that anyone who has seen a film is an expert, and this certainly applies to collectors. Like other sorts of obsessive-compulsive behavior, reality doesn't enter deeply into the equation. If collectors were just normal people buying a lemon, they would either say, "A fake. I want my money back," or "I'm done with this; I'm going back to buying something reliable like Rembrandts." In a sense, it really doesn't matter if something is fake; we want it anyway. In an introduction he wrote to a symposium of seals held at the museum he founded for his own collection, the late Eli Borowski described the inner logic of the collector, which might be compared to that of the big game hunter:2 stalking the prey, looking at the disembodied heads mounted on the wall, and recalling the hunt is what it's all about.

The Maltese Falcon: the fat man Kaspar Gutman, effete Joel Cairo, hard-as-nails Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and the rest, who pursue their prey for years, discover it is dross, lash out at each other, and then relaunch their crusade. To see fools on a fool's errand, trying to capture water in their fingers and thereby touch the past, somehow living, possibly eternally, and in the process perhaps achieve a sense of oneness with that which is somehow greater than themselves is utterly pathetic and yet utterly human. Fakery is a kind of all too human tragedy, the bilateral symmetry of buyer and seller, of con artist and sucker, at which we should express a similarly human sense of amusement (or schadenfraude) and then look away in dismay and embarrassment. In this sense, fakes are not bad, merely pathetic.

But we must make a distinction between the big-timers - whose names we all know and whose representatives may well be in the audience collecting evidence to sue my ass - and the small-timers. My friend David Ilan correctly points out to me that these are wholly different phenomena. The small-timers desire, above all, a sense of participation as opposed to the sense of possession and control that the big-timers display in abundance. The big-timers are almost by definition adversaries of archaeology, whatever the ultimate disposition of their collections, since they are a direct cause of massive looting and faking in the present. The effects of small-timers, everyone's Aunt Millie who wants to have a lamp from the Holy Land on the mantle in Des Moines, a memento of a trip, may be no less disastrous in the sense that archaeological sites must be mined for whole vessels to satisfy the market. Small-timers also keep petty forgers of coins and scarabs and tzachkas in business throughout the tourist-saturated world.

But the small-timers are collectors of memories, not of power, and they are potentially educable about the non-renewability of archaeological resources. But their needs must be taken into consideration: their desire to participate, to understand, in tangible ways that only material culture provides. Dispatching study collections to every church and synagogue might be one way to address this need, but in the capitalist world everyone has the right to personally own such things if he so desires.

For some, the goal of embracing fakes is a continuation of the roller coaster ride, fortune and glory, another write up in the Illustrated London News, leading to more grants and intellectual immortality. This might be called the Schliemann/Dorak Gambit. For others, seeing every unprovenanced artifact come down the pike is a sad sort of crap game, sorting through the haystack in search of that one needle or spinning straw into gold like Rumpelstiltskin. We could call this the Mendenhall-Lambert-Mulder I Want to Believe/Completion Backwards Principle. David Ilan also points to the Easy Way Forward/No Muss, No Fuss Method, where significant, ostensibly meaningful artifacts may be discussed without having to resort to the mess of excavation and context. There is also simple greed; Oscar White Muscarella documented very nicely the rat lines that connect thieves and forgers with collectors and museums. Perhaps this could be called the Safer on Park Avenue/Odessa File Program.

What is the goal of scholarly cooperation with collectors and ultimately forgers? Is it a feeble effort to find a kabalistic combination that will unlock all the secrets of the world or a means to hang out with rich folks, see some cool stuff, and cop a ride on the yacht? Or is it everything in between, a spectrum of intellectual curiosity, practical accommodation, and moral compromises that are as human as the urge to possess that grips the collector? The kind word for this may ultimately be prostitution, where we are reduced to merely arguing about the price. But the edifice of scholarship is shaky enough without the introduction of falsehoods and with the deliberate exercise of power over scholars by collectors.

But finally, as if to introduce an inevitable moral twist, there are genuine orphans of history, real, unprovenanced artifacts whose existence is no fault of their own and whose study will bring genuine enlightenment. In a recent essay, Mark Geller points to Jewish incantation bowls from Iraq, virtually the only material correlate from millennia of exile in that country.3 Without them, there is nothing. Are scholars not to study them? Or should perhaps scholars politely decline to study those things that are obviously too good to be true? How can we distinguish between what is necessary and useful and what is merely vain?

To say that only absolutism about unprovenanced artifacts is the only thing preventing scholars from eagerly swan-diving down a slippery slope may be technically correct. But this is a moral commentary on a discipline that cannot make discriminating judgments. Without the linkages to politics, and most importantly, economics (and hence, the capability to command the mining of more objects and the production of more fakes), studying unprovenanced artifacts would merely be a question of professional reputation and thereby of no interest to virtually anyone besides scholars' tenure committees and mothers.

The politics of fakes is less a question of politics per se than product placement, that is to say, salesmanship. Having isolated a small series of controversial issues (from an ever narrowing constellation), the faker of Joash appears to have attempted to imitate familiar objects, literary genres, and techniques. Joash is a knock off of Tell Dan (better looking, better made, more directly Biblical, etc.), whose roll-out took more than a year, while the James Ossuary shows that Jesus sells at any time. Fakes that bring people closer to sources of faith are that much more powerful talismans. Perhaps this is the Jerusalem Syndrome that Yuval Goren will be speaking about in his talk.

But fakes must build on what is already known. Recall the fraudulent Philistine leather scrolls of the late 1960s, which attempted to capitalize on the then still new Dead Sea Scrolls. These particular fakes also generated a buzz and were authenticated by respectable scholars, before coming apart under the weight of their own crudity: it was shown that the letters were derived from the Siloam Inscription, only written backwards. Some commodities such as Cycladic or Benin figurines have an aesthetic appeal that is relatively constant, as do cute little cylinder seals. Aniconic or otherwise, tiny objects such as inscriptions or bullae, however, likely appeal to a smaller subset of collectors with intellectual pretensions.

The politics of fakes attempting to ingratiate themselves into established, political, social, and religious traditions must balance innovation with conservatism. They must be familiar but not radical. Benjamin suggested that performances in film achieved greater effect by "acting as little as possible." Supremely opportunistic product fakes run the risk of being too good to be true or not very interesting so the market ignores them. Joash and James show this product placement logic at work. Inevitably, the question of fakes cannot be separated from that of unprovenanced artifacts and the marketplace.

Walter Benjamin's description of reproductions fits precisely with the problem of fake antiquities. But Benjamin was a sort of kabalistic socialist, and his real problem was with capitalism. This is our problem as well, and at this point, it might as well be stated that we are unlikely to do away with capitalism any time soon.

Capitalism, I would argue, simply doesn't care about archaeology in an intellectual sense, what it has done or can do. It's in it for the fun, and if it doesn't have fun, it is going to take its checkbook and go home. Part of the fun, of course, is tangible, the sense of possession and participation provided by collecting and, less directly, in excavation. Professionals underestimate this at their peril, especially when a dramatic example is played out every summer as laypeople flock to Israel in particular to pay good money to join in the fun. Collecting, again, might simply be a cost of doing business, both in terms of garnering support and for living in a free society. Fakes are therefore like any other curse on the marketplace, from "Bolex" watches or the thousands of emails we all get from Mrs. Sese Seko regarding the $30 million her late husband deposited in a Nigerian bank but she can't get out of the country without our help.

Archaeology wants to claim exemptions from the rules of capitalism by outlawing trade in antiquities. Such legal distortions to the market are common; witness the requirement in the West that government projects allocate a percentage of funds to archaeological investigations. In some senses, these legalisms are highly positive; they represent the end of a foolish romantic era of archaeology, the era of great discovery and enlightenment (ex oriente lux in our case), that was followed by a pretentious science-serving-humanity phase (in which we learned to make irrigation canals like the ancients). Legalism marks the advent of a proportional role for archaeology as a service industry, like library science. Fake artifacts here are not epic disasters, merely frauds, subjects of misrepresentations, broken contracts, and protracted litigation. Fakes, then, are not really so bad. They may not be real, but they'll keep the lawyers in business. But to suggest that antiquities should be exempt from capitalist regimes of value requires better arguments than we have thus been able to muster. Our disciplinary selfishness and unwillingness to share the past with others is, rightly, seen as an illegal if not immoral "taking" and infringement of property rights. Carping about the public interest and misapprehensions created by Indiana Jones and Lara Croft prove further that the discipline is selfish and even unable to share fantasy worlds or to communicate what it really does effectively.

Therefore, the fear expressed by Israel Antiquities Authority director Shuka Dorfman regarding the commodification of archaeology, in response to an interesting proposal to sell surplus sherds, is entirely correct and entirely beside the point. In the real world, money makes everything go, and commodification has been there all along; archaeology could not exist without it since at the very least we sell an image of ourselves as romantic explorers or dispassionate scientists to an unsuspecting public and expect them to pony up their gift or even tax dollars. Commodification is a means of disseminating the real, and what could be more real than a body sherd in lucite. Reality could thus be disseminated in bite-sized pieces. If we don't entertain such notions seriously, then we become much like ancient Egyptian mortuary temples or the modern European social welfare system, condemning future generations to care in perpetuity for body sherds that we excavated without a clue as to how or why.

For those who pronounce categorically on the problem, to the effect that sales are anathema, a small comparison might be in order. In one season at Megiddo, I would reluctantly throw away more Early Bronze Age sherds from bad contexts than have been collected in 150 years of New York State archaeology, sherds numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands. There was no place to put them, nothing to do with them, and it pained me to do it. In the New York State Museum, however, every prehistoric sherd has its own custom-fitted foam slot in custom-made metal shelving, and to examine these sherds, one must run a gauntlet of curators and don white cotton gloves in the presence of watchful minders . Now, there is not enough shelving in the known world to hold even one season's sherds from one decent-sized site in Israel, much less a sherd hell like Rome. And there are not enough graduate students in this quadrant of the galaxy to lock in basements with orders to analyze even the sherds from good contexts.

We should, therefore, be realistic about our embarrassment of riches. A legalized lucite sherd paperweight trade would share the wealth, provided that the absurd fiction of a legalized market in complete items were eliminated, at the pinnacle of which are the beautiful, the rare, and the fake, things seen only by collectors, their fences, and compliant scholars. Opening up the bottom would only work if the top were shut down, something that might be a political impossibility. In that case, the entire market should be shut down. That too is an impossibility, given political realities, not the least of which involves Israel with its open rather than closed society like its neighbors. But professionals must realize that by making idealistically sweeping and categorical judgments such as these, that have no bearing on the real politics much less the economics of things, our viewpoints are going to be immediately dismissed.

If the only choices we can come up with for our excess body sherds are for them to be recycled as road fill, reburied in the manner of sacred objects, or treated like drugs – pick up a sherd, go to jail – then we have reached a laughable point. If we can't even figure out what to do with the real stuff, then we should stop excavating so damn much of it and worry about the fake stuff later. If we cannot even slow the destruction of archaeological sites, most supremely the continuing evisceration of the Temple Mount/Haram el-Sharif in Jerusalem by the Waqf, then we should not waste what energy we have kvetching about fakes. The 21st century will see an unprecedented global archaeological extinction event, especially in the Middle East. In the real world, fakes are a red herring.

In the end, we have little else to do to justify our existence as a discipline than to defend the real. We are not sociologists or social historians, trained to look carefully at how the past interacts or is used by the present. We should not presume to become social activists, in thrall to some ideology whose justification we find in our personal temperament and corollary reading of the past. We should strive to be the best excavators, analysts, and teachers we can be. This isn't much, but maybe it is more than we think. To do so is to strive for the real, to peer through fakery and ideology, to stress the reality and even beauty of what was (or some of it) and the incomplete, hubris-defying nature of human self-knowledge.

Defending the real means acts as the advocate for the past, not because it teaches or reveals but because it pleases us and helps us situate ourselves, in personal, aesthetically driven processes of creativity. Fakes should be opposed because our first and only responsibility is to the past, recovered and presented as impartially and dispassionately as possible.

But what are the moral dimensions of defending the real? It may be all we have, but to make such claims requires a moral standing. This is the legitimacy acquired by adopting a consistent moral standpoint that paradoxically, at the very least and in the final analysis, puts the needs of the living ahead of those of the dead and our merry band of necromancers. It is a question of the bottom line. Here Near Eastern archaeology, and indeed archaeology as a whole, runs into a problem; in my view, it has no moral standing whatsoever.

The lack of a moral standing today does not result from the altogether well understood alliance, indeed, foundation, of archaeology in imperialism. Archaeology would be nothing without imperialism; it would never have come into being without the practical and intellectual codependence with Western imperialism, for which, at this late date, we should feel no guilt whatsoever, or at least none in particular. Archaeology is imperialism, a form of extending the Western systematic understanding of past and present to everywhere else. Still less is the putative shame brought about the archaeology's alliance with nationalism, that is to say, yesterday's identity politics. This is a commonplace, and in any case, the sooner we realize that most of our colleagues would sell their mothers and children for funding and for access the sooner we can put this particular bit of post-colonial guilt behind us.

Archaeology, particularly in the Near East, has no moral standing because of its wretched record of tolerating and embracing genocide and totalitarianism in the present, from Sudan to Syria, and most lately in the form of Saddam Hussein, as a means of facilitating its own petty prerogatives. We should not be happy about having benefited from the more dreadful consequences of colonialism, which in a few places included mass murder. But that was then and this is now. Our present complicity in the murder of between 300,000 and 1.3 million Iraqis taints, or should taint, any claims to moral standing and practical funding made by the profession as a whole, on questions of funding, looting, markets, fakes, and to be sure, culture, society, and politics at large. Not a peep of protest, indeed, the most shameful excuses and justifications were offered, CNN-like contortions were employed to maintain or regain access, and the global profession looked the other way as people were slaughtered.4

No amount of USAID pity funding, heralding a new golden age of Mesopotamian archaeology, can wash away this stain (a golden age in which we might ask whether Jews will be welcome to participate once again). Limits were reached and exceeded as a profession dedicated to necromancy averted its gaze from the necrotizing of an entire population. Only a tiny handful of professionals, namely a group called Archaeologists for Human Rights, has now tried to reclaim our morality by working for the excavation of mass graves in Iraq, the only type of ethical archaeology that should go on for the foreseeable future. Fascism and mass murder should be the tipping point after which we no longer pursue the past but rather address the present. Fake antiquities, indeed, any antiquities, are utterly irrelevant after this point.

So, in the end, our pursuit of the fake and defense of the real run into insurmountable obstacles, external and internal. The real world of capitalism isn't going to go away, and neither, I suspect, is the ideal world of our own minds, where, like the Iron Chiefs, we have the people's acclaim forever and a credit line to go along with it. Internally, our own shame will probably be pushed into a secret place deep inside; we nevertheless wear it like the mark of Cain on our foreheads. In defending the real against the onslaught of the fake, we might consider ways to save our own souls before complaining about others' desires to share the past with us. And we should figure out what to do with all the real stuff we've managed to squirrel away. Until then, the question of whether fakes are bad must be answered with greater caution than has been the case thus far.

* This is a slightly modified version of a talk presented at the session "The Ethics of Collecting and Communicating the Near Eastern Past" at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Atlanta, GA, 20 November 2003.


(back)  1Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Illuminations," Essays and Reflections , edited by Hannah Arendt, pp. 217-251. Schocken, New York, 1968.Originally published in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung V, 1 1936.

(back)  2Elie Borowski. Introduction to the History of the Seal Collection of the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem. In Seals and Sealing in the Ancient Near East, Proceedings of the Symposium Held on September 2, 1993, Jerusalem, Israel, edited by Joan Goodnick Westenholz, 11-22. Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem 1995.

(back)  3Mark Geller. Spies, Thieves and Cultural Heritage. Institute of Jewish Studies University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT. Copyright 1999-2003 UCL.

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