Collecting antiquities is fraught with peril, and not just if you are Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. With advances in technology and scholarship, more and more museums and collectors have discovered that some of the prize possessions in their display cabinets are not what they appear to be. Although this kind of bad news is often swept under the rug rather quietly, by institutions or individuals who do not wish to damage their prestige, I want to share an interesting example of how one American museum recently handled this situation in just the right way.
San Francisco’s Mexican Museum was founded in the 1970’s, and over the past 40 years it has amassed a collection of over 16,000 objects, dating from Prehistory to the present-day. For most of its existence the Museum has been somewhat nomadic, lacking a permanent home and with its holdings scattered in warehouses around the city. Beginning in 2019 however, a new high-rise tower currently under construction in the SoMa district of the city will house the Museum on four of its floors.
In 2012, the Museum won a coveted Affiliate Museum status with the Smithsonian Institution, a relationship which allows it to draw upon the resources and expertise of the Smithsonian in areas such as exhibition planning and object conservation. As part of its due diligence in granting affiliate status, the Smithsonian required testing and authentication of the objects in the Museum’s collection. The oldest part of that collection includes a large number of Pre-Columbian artifacts, i.e. objects that were created by native peoples before the arrival of Columbus.
The analysis of these objects has just been completed by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History and, unfortunately, it turns out that a significant portion of the Museum’s holdings – such as the pot pictured below – are either fakes, or cannot be authenticated: “According to the report, only 83 of 2,000 artifacts from the pre-Hispanic, or pre-Columbian, era could be certified as museum-quality by an independent team of museum curators who came from Mexico City to conduct the test. The other 1,917 are considered “decorative,” and will probably be given to schools or smaller museums before the museum moves from its temporary Fort Mason site to a permanent home…”
As an aside, I find it somewhat curious that a “Mexican” museum would be housing (alleged) Inca artefacts. The Inca Empire, even at its fullest extent, did not reach anywhere near Mexico, nor did the peoples of present-day Mexico and Peru share a common language, culture, or religion. It’s a bit like putting objects from Norman England into a museum dedicated to the history of Seljuk Turkey. But there you are.
In any case, it’s anticipated that, as the analysis of the other objects in the Museum’s collection continues, more fakes will probably be found. The Museum expects that the number of red flags will decrease as the relative age of the objects under examination decreases. This seems a reasonable expectation, particularly once the analysis reaches into the 18th-20th centuries, although no doubt there will still be things like fake retablos and reproduction pottery to sort through.
While the findings were rather shocking, the damage here is not ultimately fatal. A collection of over 100 authentic pre-Columbian objects is still a significant one. For our purposes moreover, there are a couple of takeaways for us to consider as part of this story.
First, kudos to both the Smithsonian and to the Mexican Museum for doing their jobs properly. They thoroughly examined the collection under a magnifying glass, using the best experts available, and then publicly addressed the results pf those findings. It’s a breath of fresh air to see public institutions appreciating their duty to the public whom they serve, more than they appreciate their own egos – see, e.g., the current disastrous situation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Second, this is a very useful cautionary tale when it comes to collecting antiquities, whatever culture they may come from. Most of us are not in a position to purchase large numbers of these things, but there are certainly tempting objects out there for us to acquire. In fact, you could go to an online auction right now, and purchase something that was (supposedly) made centuries ago, by a long-vanished civilization. This story ought to show you why it’s important to be extremely cautious, before acquiring something described as a Middle Kingdom ushabti, a Tan Dynasty bronze, or a Classic Maya pot: even museum curators can be fooled.