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Faking it, artfully

A Brooklyn museum lifts the curtain on its fake Coptic sculptures and wins praise.

(Page 2 of 2)

The Brooklyn Museum, of course, is not the first institution to prominently display a collection of known fakes. In 1990, the British Museum – that most august of institutions – launched an exhibition called "Fake? The Art of Deception." In 1996, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, hosted "Discovery and Deceit: Archaeology and the Forger's Craft." In 2006, England's Victoria and Albert Museum trotted out a host of fake Picassos and Chagalls, as part of an effort by Scotland Yard to crack down on expert forgeries.

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And then there are the institutions that unknowingly – and prominently – deal in fakes. Last year, for instance, the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology in Germany had to offer refunds to about 10,000 visitors after the Chinese government alleged that a popular exhibition on Terracotta Warriors was a total fraud.

"Before our exhibition opened, a few patrons in Kansas expressed concern that the Nelson-Atkins was going to lose credibility," says Robert Cohon, who organized the 1996 exhibit. "And I said, 'It's OK. We're honest, we're scrupulous, we're big enough to admit that it's part of being human.' It wasn't so much a matter of poking fingers at people."

Dr. Cohon, a research scientist at the University of Missouri and curator of ancient art at Nelson-Atkins, regularly writes and lectures on forgeries. "It's a ton load of fun," he laughs. "As academics, we spend time dealing with, 'Is this a young Tiberius? a middle-age Tiberius?' things like that, and then you become a detective – it can lift you up and out of the grind."

This, he says, is what institutes have to gain from organizing an exhibition that includes fakes. "For us, it worked very, very, very well. The museum-goers became involved in that hunt. They were fully engaged, not passively engaged."

At the Brooklyn Museum, Russman says she hopes to separate the forgeries from the ancient sculptures, but to use the gallery space to draw visual and physical connections between the two. "Some of the forgeries," she says, "are actually very inventive and should stand by themselves. I must say that in the most ambitious of those forgeries, the sculptors may have been trying to outdo the ancient pieces."

In an interview, Gary Vikan, the scholar who identified some of the Brooklyn Museum's fakes in 1977, said the idea of displaying a particularly beautiful fake has its own twisted appeal. "People will say, 'If something's perfect, physically perfect, what's wrong with fake? What's wrong with fake if it looks right?' " says Dr. Vikan, who is now the director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. "And then you might think, 'Well, museums may deal in beauty, but scholars deal in truth.' "

"The art world is often thought of as having this back-drop of pointy-headed intellectuals," he says. "And all of a sudden, when they make a mistake, and you're invited to see it, it can be a lot of fun."