While most major museums have some fakes in their collections, few like to advertise the fact. But in an unusual move, the Brooklyn Museum is planning an exhibition for 2009 that will call attention to a group of forgeries among its collection of Coptic sculptures.
A third of the museum’s collection of Coptic sculptures were actually made in the mid-20th century, the museum’s curator of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art, Edna Russmann, recently told the Art Newspaper. Coptic art refers to Egyptian art dating from the Late Antique period, between roughly the fifth and the mid-seventh centuries C.E. The art is called “Coptic” because art historians long believed it to have been made by early Christians.
Although scholars have known about the fakes in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection for decades, the exhibition, which opens in February, will be the first time that the museum has shared its view with the public. The pieces in question were acquired between the late 1950s and the early 1970s.
“Two years ago, we looked at the idea of doing an exhibit of forgeries across the museum’s collection,” the museum’s chief curator and vice director for curatorial affairs, Kevin Stayton, said in an interview. When that exhibition didn’t ultimately go forward, the museum decided instead to do a smaller show focused just on the Coptic collection, with its large number of forgeries.
“The idea of connoisseurship” — how scholars examine a work of art in order to determine its authenticity and proper attribution — “has a lot of general appeal,” Mr. Stayton said in explaining why the museum decided to do the exhibition.
Doubts about the Brooklyn Museum’s sculptures date back at least to 1977, when a Byzantine art scholar who is now the director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Gary Vikan, argued that they were forgeries in a lecture he delivered at Columbia.
But if the existence of the fakes is old news, where and by whom they were made remain mysterious.
According to a 2001 article by a former curator at the Brooklyn Museum, Donald Spanel, a large number of fakes appeared on the market beginning in the late 1950s, offered by dealers mostly in Switzerland and in New York. One New York dealer, Jerome Eisenberg, acknowledged in a phone interview that he had sold the museum one piece now considered to be fake, a roundel with a border of palm fronds and a central bust. The museum acquired the piece in 1960.
Asked where he bought the roundel, Mr. Eisenberg said that he purchased it from a “very reliable, very ethical” dealer in Cairo, a Copt named Kamel Hammouda. Asked if he knew where Mr. Hammouda got the sculpture, Mr. Eisenberg said that it was against the rules of the trade at the time to ask such questions.
“When you’re buying antiquities in Egypt or Beirut or Turkey or Algeria, you don’t ask the dealer who dug things up,” he said.
The group of forgeries to which the Brooklyn Museum’s pieces belong — and examples of which are scattered in museums around the world — are generally referred to by scholars as the Sheikh Ibada sculptures, after a false provenance that was assigned to some of them by a dealer around 1960.
A curator of ancient art at the Princeton Art Museum, J. Michael Padgett, said in an e-mail that the Princeton Art Museum has two such works, acquired in 1962. “Their questionable authenticity was recognized and reported on more than 30 years ago, and since that time they have not been exhibited,” Mr. Padgett said.
In his 2001 article, Mr. Spanel suggests that the obscurity of Coptic art as a field, and the general ignorance about it, made dealers and scholars vulnerable to being duped. As Mr. Spanel points out in a footnote, “Coptic art” is itself a misnomer, reflecting an outdated theory that these slightly folksy sculptures were made by early Christians.
Today, most scholars believe that what are called “Coptic” pieces were made by craftsmen who produced work for a variety of markets, both Christian and pagan. However, in the mid-20th century, the fakes, which often feature Christian imagery, perfectly suited the conventional wisdom. Despite numerous aesthetic differences from known authentic pieces — Mr. Spanel refers to the fakes’ “formulaic facial features” and the “rubbery” appearance of the bodies — many scholars embraced them as iconic. In 1963, a Brooklyn Museum curator, John Cooney, called one of the fakes — which depicts a paralytic, whom Christ has healed, lifting his bed on his back — “the most important Christian sculpture to come out of Egypt in this century.”
Mr. Spanel follows a German scholar, Hans-Georg Severin, in conjecturing that the sculptures were made in Egypt, perhaps by people who worked as restorers for dealers or for the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and that they were made to be marketed as antiquities. Although it is not known how much the actual forgers made for their work, Mr. Spanel reports that museums purchased the fake works for as much as $5,000.
Another former curator at the Brooklyn Museum, Robert Bianchi, said in an interview that he was aware of the existence of fakes in the collection in the late 1970s. “It became obvious to us that there were several pieces that were really not right,” he said.
What is not clear is whether the museum ever shared its doubts with museum visitors. Mr. Bianchi said that he intentionally kept one piece he called a “roaring fake” — a relief showing three heads above a palm tree capital — on display in the galleries, as “a reminder that even the best of us get fooled.” But he didn’t remember exactly what the curators put on the wall label. “If memory serves, we did hedge our bet,” he said in an e-mail. “I seem to recall saying something like ‘suggested to date to’ or words to that effect.”