Faking it, artfully
A Brooklyn museum lifts the curtain on its fake Coptic sculptures and wins praise.
The Brooklyn Museum of Art surprised some New Yorkers last month when it confirmed that it would show a handful of expert forgeries alongside a February exhibition on late antique art. The exhibition, tentatively titled "Unearthing the Truth: Egypt's Pagan and Coptic Sculpture," will focus on a collection of stone artwork dating from the 5th to the 7th century C.E.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
According to Edna Russman, curator of Egyptian, classical, and ancient Middle Eastern art at the Brooklyn Museum, experts have long harbored reservations about the 31-piece collection. After a three-year inquiry conclusively revealed that some of the sculptures were fakes – and most had been significantly retouched – Dr. Russman began planning a large exhibition at the museum's recently renovated Brooklyn campus.
"The sculptures had been in storage for decades, but they were very popular when they were first exhibited. I was impelled to put together another exhibition," Russman said in an interview. "And if I'm going to put them out there again, I have to put out the fakes too. This story has to be told if we're going to show this material at all."
Russman's decision, first reported in the London-based Art Newspaper and carried breathlessly by a wide range of media outlets here, calls into question the authenticity of similar artwork in institutions across the world. As the Art Newspaper noted, "[M]useums which acquired Coptic sculptures in the past 50 years are likely to face similar problems."
But more intriguingly, say many experts, the firestorm has helped expose an important evolution in the relationship between museum and patron. "In the past, no one wanted to admit their mistakes. It was part of the anonymous museum – that stone wall," says Graham Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). "Now there's a real sense that the museum needs to be humanized and given a level of transparency. It represents a shift in attitude. It used to be that when things were faulty, they were wished away, never to be seen again."
The DIA, which itself recently emerged from an extensive architectural face-lift, has talked about doing an exhibition on forgeries. "I know from experience, from being on symposiums from South Bend to the Vatican," says Dr. Beal, "that there's a lot of interest [among] sitting directors in being more open, in investing the general public with trust. These works of art are being shown to the public. We need to be honest about what they are."
Kevin Stayton, chief curator and vice director for curatorial affairs at the Brooklyn Museum, argues that displaying the fakes alongside the authentic pieces will help strengthen patrons' trust. Museums, he says, "have traditionally put themselves forward as an anonymous voice of authority. That idea's been challenged more and more in the past few decades. Museums should become a place for the exchange of ideas, for discussions, for the airing of opinions." Being honest about mistakes is only natural, he says. "Pretending you know everything and never made a mistake? No one buys that anyway."