Archaeologists embrace forgery
By Wayne Sayles
In my most recent post here I mentioned that an archaeological dig in Bulgaria from the late 1980s was salted with forgeries of fractional silver coins from Appolonia and Mesembria. I speculated that this salting was done surreptitiously by local forgers who then cited the presence of these coins in the official excavation as proof of their authenticity—and thereby of the hoard being challenged. After a very long and testy debate between coin dealers that condemned the coins and academic scientists that authenticated them, the coins were finally proven without a doubt to be forgeries. They have since then pretty much disappeared from the market.
Shortly after posting those comments, I was referred to an article in the Art Newspaper (February, 2012) titled "Police raid criminal gang suspected of faking antiquities." The article explains how forgers used an x-ray machine to confuse scientific dating tests—which I found interesting. It went on to describe how the "gang" bilked an aristocratic philanthropist out of hundreds of thousands of euros. An even more interesting detail emerged from that report by Tina Lepri and Ermanno Rivetti. "The gang was allegedly led by Edoardo David, a renowned archaeologist who often worked as a consultant for the archaeological division of the Soprintendenza for the Lazio region (the local arm of Italy's ministry of culture)." That revelation gave me pause to reflect once more on the Black Sea Hoard fiasco mentioned above. Were the nine forgeries found in an archaeological excavation at Nesebur (all die-linked to the ones under debate) really salted surreptitiously? Or, is it possible that the whole event was an orchestrated attempt by archaeologists to discredit the ancient coin hobby and trade?
Adding fuel to that fire, about six years ago a member of the Science and Archaeology Group of Hebrew University posted a surprisingly candid view on the Unidroit-L Yahoo Group. Archaeologist Joe E. Zias wrote: "I would encourge the art of forging antiquities to the point that it would be impossible for dealers, collectors and scientists to distinguish between the real and the forged." Then, Zias went on to explain how archaeologists in the U.S. had taught their students the art of flint knapping and encouraged them to sell the products to collectors as authentic artifacts in order to "teach them a lesson about trading in unprovenanced and at times looted items."
Then about five years ago I read a BBC report about the suspect authenticity of King Solomon's Tablet of Stone. According to the report, Israeli archaeologists "have now concluded that everything that came to market in the last 20 years without clear provenance should be considered a fake." That also seemed a little extreme at the time and I let it slide. However, the evidence is mounting that some archaeologists are consciously scheming to undermine the legitimate market for antiquities, including coins, by casting doubt on authenticity.
History is replete with examples of archaeologists forging finds to raise their own stature, and a Google search for "archaeological forgery" is quite enlightening. Ian Hayward in 1987 wrote, "Archaeological forgery is a tangible form of historical fiction. There were no archaeological fakes in the eighteenth century because the discipline had not become a central cultural activity."
In Archaeology magazine, the public voice of the Archaeological Institute of America, an article "Forging Ahead" by Charles Stanish appeared in the May/June 2009 issue. The author talks at length, and almost gleefully, about the negative affect that offerings of artifact forgeries on eBay has had on the antiquities market. Like the Israeli archaeologists mentioned above, he sees everything on the market as fake.
The legal and ethical status of modern reproductions (forgeries or fakes) of ancient artifacts is a subject that deserves discussion and further thought. Is it justifiable or ethical to deceive collectors, tourists and others who seek to acquire an ancient coin (the most commonly reproduced ancient artifacts)? Is it justifiable or ethical for authorities in "source countries" to allow fleecing tourists by offering reproductions (represented as being genuine) for sale?
Those who advocate or condone this are motivated by belief that "the end justifies the means." Perhaps that end might be to discredit antiquities collecting and the antiquities trade, as Sayles speculates, or on the other hand it might be to "protect cultural heritage" in source countries by allowing fraudulent sale of reproductions to tourists - a far more common practice than most people realize, as one coin dealer observed in this presentation to the 1990 American Numismatic Association Convention: http://www.mindspring.com/~kroh/Empirecoins/fakes.html
A belief that "the end justifies the means" has been the source of many unjustifiable practices throughout history. Whether preservation of the archaeological record or protecting the cultural heritage of source countries can be viewed as justifying the deception and fraud involved in selling antiquities reproductions on false premises is a subject upon which there are sharp differences of opinion. The ethical standards of numismatic organizations prohibit this, and such deceptive practices are also (in many cases) violations of the law.