Finding Fakes: New Museum Confronts Old Problem Head-On

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.

This Centuries-Old Church Was Just Bulldozed

Here is a bizarre, and indeed sad, bit of news to start your Friday.

It appears that the citizens of San Pablo del Monte, in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, have some rather strange ideas. Last weekend, they decided to demolish the 18th century Franciscan chapel of Santo Cristo. Yes, you read that correctly. The entire pasted-colored Spanish colonial chapel – bell towers, dome, et al – was completely razed by bulldozers early in the morning on Tuesday, with no word to either government or religious authorities.

The bishop of Tlaxacala, Francisco Moreno Barrón, has called the demolition an act of “barbarism”, which was not authorized by the diocese. In response, the Governor of Tlaxacala announced at a press conference that, in cooperation with federal authorities, he has filed charges against the person or persons responsible for the illegal destruction of the chapel. The action seems all the more surprising, in that the region is known to be a deeply devout Catholic area, so there is no suggestion that leftists carried out the action.

At present, local police believe this was an act of ignorance, which grew out of the combination of two rather unfortunate ideas. Some residents were concerned that cracks in the chapel walls indicated that it was in danger of collapse, and therefore razing the building was a matter of public safety. However authorities from the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the federal agency charged with historic preservation of Mexico’s cultural patrimony, say that the building was structurally sound, and pointed out that any building more than a century old is bound to have some cracks in it which do not affect the integrity of the structure.

In addition, while it may not have been the initial justification for the demolition, ultimately locals may have supported it because it was commonly felt that the chapel blocked the view of the parish church across the street.  Said building is a comparatively more modern confection, in terms of construction date, which looks something like a child’s idea of a castle in the Alps. As one can see in the photographs accompanying the news reports, it was certainly a far better candidate for demolition than the Franciscan chapel.

Although the goal of historic preservation can create annoying procedural norms for developers, architects, and officials to follow, this latest example of what happens when it is ignored is a potent reminder of why enforcing such measures continues to be necessary, and why they ought to be taken seriously. Whether the destruction is as vast as that of Penn Station in Manhattan, or as small as that of this side chapel on the road to Veracruz, when we intentionally destroy beautiful and historic buildings, we irreparably lose an important part of who we are. These structures are not simply utilitarian combinations of materials expressing particular aesthetic views. They are places touched by the lives of those who built them, and those who passed through them, decade after decade, century after century. As such, they are one of the very few tangible connections we have to the past. When they are lost, they are lost forever.

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The Dark Knight in Mexico: A Batman Birthday Exhibition

To mark the 75th Anniversary of the first appearance of Batman in “Detective Comics” back in 1939, Warner Brothers and MUMEDI, the Design Museum of Mexico, co-sponsored an exhibition inviting artists to submit their own, customized versions of the Dark Knight’s signature bat-eared cowl and cape.  The resulting show opened recently at MUMEDI, and showcases a wealth of talent and creativity.  Using the same maquette, each artist focused on different aspects of Batman’s personality, backstory, and so forth, creating some truly unique designs.

You can see photos and a video featuring many of the exhibition entries by following this link.  There are a number of terrific ones, but my favorite has to be this absolutely amazing, intricate version by artist Christian Pacheco (Kimbal) which you can see here.  If you love archaeology and art history as much as I do, you’ll immediately appreciate why I was drawn to this piece.

The artist used one of the ancient Maya gods, Camazotz, as his inspiration, and appropriately so.  For in Mayan mythology Camazotz was, in fact, a “Bat-Man” – i.e., an anthropomorphic bat, who ruled the night.  Unlike Batman from the comics, Camazotz was a monster, and liked to rip people’s heads off, but then again Bruce Wayne when he’s angry is apt to do the same thing, so perhaps there’s a further analogy to be made.

More importantly, the look of the thing is just brilliant.  If you have ever seen works of pre-Columbian sculpture, you’ll recognize that the techniques and principles Kimbal used in his work are referencing ancient works which, while originally brightly painted, have faded somewhat over time and from being buried for centuries.  The laying on of thicker, almost extruded layers of clay to build up the design on the armor gives an even greater, weightier presence to the superhero.  Kimbal has clearly done his homework, and looked at a lot of the archaeology and art history of his country to get this just right.

Even if you knew nothing about Batman from the comic books, and saw this piece displayed at a museum with a substantial collection of early sculpture from the Americas, such as Dumbarton Oaks here in D.C., I daresay you would not find it the least out of place.  The fact that the artist made the connection between the artistic past and the pop culture present, is exactly the sort of bridge-building I like to see. It opens up the viewer to exploring new ideas and areas of learning, which they might never have been aware of otherwise.

The exhibition runs from now until October 8th at MUMEDI in Mexico City.

"Batman" by Kimbal (2014)

“Batman” by Kimbal (2014)