Image courtesy  Zulu Tribal Art
 Fake ?

by Andries Loots
7 June 2004

The proliferation of recent forgeries being passed off as genuine traditional artifacts has again drawn attention to the dilemma of curators, collectors and dealers who value integrity in establishing the authenticity of traditional artifacts. The following is mostly quoted from an article by Jonathan Lowen, Kevin Conru, Udo Horstmann and  Alain Guisson:

"Fake objects have already been included into museum and private collections through blatant and deliberate fraud, sometimes highly sophisticated, even to the extent of bogus provenance being created by photographs and documents purporting to support an origin other than the recent manufacture by forgers. 

Recently interest in the abstract forms of Southern African art has grown tremendously in Europe and America and, perhaps more importantly, in South Africa. The steep rise in prices for classical masks and figures from other African cultures encouraged a recognition that beautiful abstract artifacts, for which Southern Africa is famous, were of ‘good value’ and, by comparison, inexpensive. The taste for things ethnic and decorative, much publicized by style magazines prompted a wider public to acquire artifacts that fitted the tenets of contemporary design. Southern African vessels, platters and dishes proved extremely popular and connoisseurs began to seek out the more rare antique pieces.  Museum exhibitions such as the opening of the Brentburst Collection in Johannesburg, ‘Africa, the Art of a Continent’ in London and the recent ‘Ubuntu’ show in Paris have dramatically raised the stature of the traditional arts from Southern Africa, giving them a international credibility value that was long lacking. With the political changes after 1994, the indigenous art of South Africa was recognized both in South Africa and abroad to be important and to be awarded the same status as arts from other world cultures.  Against that background the demand from museums, collectors and amateurs for antique Southern African objects have grown exponentially. 

 As most of the old colonial collections in England have been dispersed, and the masses of artifacts collected in the 1970’s, 1980’s and early 1990’s have also been disseminated, a market hungry for wonderful artifacts has pushed prices to levels unimaginable even a few years ago. As the sources for authentic objects have dried up, a whole new type of object is invidiously making its way onto the art market, both internationally and, more widely, in South Africa. That type of object is an object made to deceive the beholder into thinking that the object is old and valuable. It is a fake. Passing it off as genuine is quite simply fraud. In case there is any doubt as to the seriousness of this insidious enterprise, we highlight three of the most worrying consequences.  

 1. Where museums, as custodians of heritage, acquire such fakes, integrity is undermined. Not only are such objects telling lies about the culture from which they are falsely said to derive, but they detract from the credibility of all those other items with which they purport to be associated. In this way genuine, early, valuable artifacts are devalued. The educational function of the museum is thus betrayed.
 2. A deep insult is perpetrated upon those whose culture is represented by such museum collections. The importance of integrity is revealed by what was said by King Goodwill KaCyprian Zwelithini, who himself wrote these words within his forward to a recent book :   
“The study, preservation and exposure of our traditional material heritage are important tasks because these items represent the cornerstones or ‘hard copy’ of our culture. The mere physical existence of these permanent reminders continually reassures of our proud origins and enhances our respect for the traditions of our ancestors. They help to restore our dignity, giving us hope, pride, and continuity to our lives.’’  
3. The deception process is essentially a vehicle for the financial gain achieved by adding value to otherwise insignificant objects. By inclusion in museums and reputable collections of fakes similar to those which they make available in the marketplace, fakers are able to pass off such objects to unconfident and uninformed buyers by cross referencing. Thus, fakers are able to engineer a worthless provenance for their objects.   
While there has always been some low level degree of tomfoolery, such as amateurs marrying a spear head to a stick, the international community first became aware of serious fakes on a larger scale with the emergence of numerous carved snuff containers of various forms made in wood and, in particular, horn and ivory.

Many have wireworked stems and have been finely and artificially patinated. Many seem to have a common origin.   
Several such fakes have recently made it into a prominent New York auction and some were published in a recent glossy publication on Zulu art. An unknown number have made their way, virus like, into private collections and still more were recently on sale in South Africa.   Equally worrying, following on the numerous successful sales of these entirely fraudulent and worthless objects, is the appearance of faked wood artifacts. While the West African fakers have for a number of years been making poor copies of a few of the iconic pieces, new, improved forgeries have been showing up in the art buying centres in South Africa, Europe and America.   Headrests, of the classical 19th century forms, are now common in the market, fooling the unsuspecting public, collectors and curators into thinking that what was once extremely rare is now, somehow, readily available. The fakes are well done and they are being made in South Africa. They are being passed off by fraudsters who wish the onlooker and purchaser to think that the amazing ‘19th century’ objects have just come from a forgotten corner of Zululand, where the original ‘owner is shown photographed with his ancient family ‘heirloom’.   There are also fakes being made, and sold, of spoons, platters, milk pails, earplugs, headrests and weapons, all replacing genuine artifacts each disguised to appear old and well used.   

Utmost care and scrutiny of material currently being filtered into the worldwide marketplace id required.  It is vital to deprive criminals of the facility to acquire “museum provenance” for their products by virtue only of their inclusion into important public collections. That is why it is so important for curators, especially of collections available for public viewing, to be vigilant and to strive to reveal the fakes and the fakers for what they are."

In the light of these disturbing facts, it is important to buy from reputable and experienced dealers; to obtain an expert second opinion before purchasing; and if the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is...
Bibliography : 
Zulu Tribal Art, Ian Difford, Amazulu Publishers, 2000, Cape Town, ISBN0958428794
[ More about traditional artifacts ] [ previous ARTicles ]