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.

​So Long, Serota: Another Art Museum Returns To Reason

With the stepping down of Sir Nicholas Serota, after a thirty-year effort to turn the Tate Gallery from a dull if respectable art museum into a schizophrenic, self-congratulatory fashion brand, the art world has been relieved of one of the most overrated talents to strut upon the world stage since Herodias persuaded her daughter to commit murder through striptease.

Although he was not the first person to implement it, one of Serota’s most influential legacies was the thematic “re-hang”, which was adopted by many collections around the world. This involves the rearranging of works in a museum’s permanent collection to more resemble temporary, thematic exhibitions. The resulting juxtapositions are based not on the chronological and stylistic developments which provide a logical framework for the study of art history, but rather on an attempt to explore idiosyncratic subjects or even personal feelings, often as selected by a particular curator.

To be fair, there are merits in not always sticking to a strictly linear timeline in the display of art, at least in certain circumstances. Historic homes are one instance; temporary exhibitions exploring particular subjects are another. For the most part however, at least before Serota et al, public institutions usually stuck with logically-assembled displays for the works in their permanent collections. Thus, if you visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Egyptian art collection is – surprise – displayed in the Egyptian galleries, while the French Impressionists are not.

Like all fads however, the a-historical display of art seems to be headed to the clearance racks. Regular readers will recall that a couple of years back, I reported on how Tate Britain, which was the original nucleus of Serota’s powerbase, rejected his policies and went back to its role as a preserver and educator on the subject of British art history. About a year later, I applauded the new chairman of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Met, who rejected the idea of turning the public art museum into something “mushy”.  

Now the Art Newspaper is reporting that, a little more than a decade after The Getty “Serota-ized” itself, the powerhouse Los Angeles museum is going back to an historically-grounded display of its permanent collection:

The Australian director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Timothy Potts, proposed the rehang when he was first recruited to lead the Los Angeles institution in 2012. Themed galleries are “fine as a social history of art”, says Potts, who is a specialist in ancient art. But chronology, he says, is “the only way you can understand the direction of stylistic change”.

The Getty’s return to chronology is part of a wider trend in US museums. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, reopened its East Building last September with a clear historical narrative of Modern art. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art recently closed a year-long presentation of works from the 1960s, installed by year across nine galleries.

Hopefully even more institutions will be following suit, now that Serota is gone, and the teachings of his disciples have been anathematized by more traditional cultural institutions. I could care less what happens in museums of contemporary art, of course. But it would be nice if the leadership of traditional art institutions such as The Prado, a museum whose re-hang becomes a more painful experience every time I visit, would realize that it is time to abandon the faddish, and return to the serious study and presentation of the works entrusted to their care.

Under Construction: Projects At Two Of The World’s Most Important Museums

There are some interesting construction projects ahead for the expansion of two already enormous, and enormously important, art institutions.

Following a recent renovation of part of its existing ground floor to expand its exhibition space, the National Gallery in London has set its sights on redeveloping St. Vincent House, located behind the museum’s Sainsbury Wing. The institution purchased the building almost 20 years ago, and it currently houses not only museum staff, but also paying tenants, including an hotel, a restaurant, a parking garage, and other offices. The leases of these tenants will be coming to an end within the next few years, allowing the museum to decide what to do next with the space.

St. Vincent House is one of those Brutalist architectual travesties that scar the downtowns of most of our cities. The only reason you’ve probably never seen it, if you’ve been to London, is that it’s mercifully well-hidden from Trafalgar Square. The stained, exposed aggregate concrete, rusting and peeling metal, crumbling brick, and utter lack of symmetry, grace, or proportion will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited, say, a college library built between about 1950 and 1980.

Since the building is tucked away, presumably there will be a reduced pressure upon the National Gallery to make it an architectural showstopper. Less visibility means less of a need to spend a fortune building something which most people will only experience from the inside, via a possible pedestrian bridge connecting the site to the Sainsbury Wing. This is the opposite of the problem faced by The Prado in Madrid during their recent expansion, which is not quite finished yet.

The buildings which The Prado has been expanding into were located not next door, but rather on a hillside directly behind the main bulk of the museum. Two of the them are the former throne room and ballroom of the Palacio del Buen Retiro, built in the 17th century. They were the only parts left standing after the rest of the palace was torn down, following destruction by Napoleon’s troops. The ballroom has already been integrated into the expanded Prado; the redevelopment of the former throne room was recentlly awarded to British starchitect Norman Foster.

As part of the The Prado’s expansion, a vast underground entrance, exhibition, and concessions area connecting these buildings by cutting into the hillside were designed by Spanish starchitect Rafael Moneo, connecting the buildings by cutting into the hillside. For reasons which I can’t fathom, Moneo was awarded the Pritzker Prize for archtiecture in 1996, and the Prince of Asturias prize for his contributions to Spanish architecture a few years later. If you are unfamiliar with his name, you are nevertheless familiar with his work, for Moneo is the designer of the monstruous Cathedral of Los Angeles, California, known among those who loathe both it and the now-disgraced Cardinal who built it as the “Taj Mahoney”.

Part of Moneo’s plan for The Prado expansion called for the disassembly of a former Baroque monastery in poor repair, which stood next to the Palace. The structure was reassembled inside a rather dull brick building whose interior otherwise reminds one of a small Marriott hotel circa 1994, which sits next to the former monastery chapel (now a parish church). While the chapel is not particularly remarkable, as far as the grandeur of Spanish ecclesiastical architecture goes, sitting next to this squat, red cube, it looks like an architectural masterpiece.

Being a Midcentury building, St. Vincent House has neither the historic pedigree nor the architectural grandeur of the spaces taken over by The Prado. Moreover, the construction timeframe is still some years away, until the leases run out, and so the museum can engage in the kind of discussion which involves long-term planning. Herein lies a real opportunity for the National Gallery to improve its offerings and focus on what its mission will be for the next few decades.

Of course, there is a hidden danger, as well. For sadly, as much as people of good will and common sense loathe the sort of Brutalism displayed by buildings like St. Vincent House, others actually love this stuff, and are becomnig increasingly vociferous about preserving it. The fact that more and more of these buildings are meeting their deserved end – and not before time, as they are falling to bits – spurs some among the (supposed) intellgentsia to argue that they should be preserved.

Back in 1984, Prince Charles almost singlehandedly stopped the proposed expansion of the National Gallery, by giving a totally unexpected speech in which he described the proposed extension of the Sainsbury Wing as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” The left and the art press – but I repeat myself – have never forgiven him for it. The Sainsbury Wing as built was a tamer, more modest structure than the monstrosity shown in the image accompanying this post, which is what had been selected. What a truly great thing for Western civilization that this strange, Martian mining colony headquarters never came to be, even if the building constructed in its place is more interesting on the inside than it is on the outside.

Last year Prince Charles became the first Royal Patron of the National Gallery, which in British philanthropic circles usually means that executives will tend to pay a bit more attention to his thoughts and opinions regarding their activities. In addition, with all due respect to Queen Elizabeth, one can only assume that sometime within the next few years the Prince will finally become King Charles III, perhaps around the same time that the museum will be taking on its next major expansion. Let us hope that such influence will not only result in the wiping of St. Vincent House from the face of the planet, but also the construction of something sensible, serviceable, and in keeping with the fabric of the rest of the National Gallery.

Original proposal for the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery