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3,000 Years of Fakes: From Furry Fish to Letter From Christ

March 9, 1990

LONDON (AP) _ Priests in ancient Babylon faked an inscription to make their temple seem older. A modern Scottish museum had to fake a fish with fur to satisfy public demand.

These are among 600 objects in a British Museum exhibition that displays 3,000 years of the forger’s art and suggests that fakes often reflect what people want to believe.

The objects range from a faked Roman chariot and photographs of fairies to a forged Rembrandt painting and a witch’s wreath.

The exhibition ″Fake? The Art of Deception,″ running through Sept. 2, contains fake jewels, coins, sculptures, fossils, furniture and porcelain.

There’s even a letter purporting to have been written by Jesus Christ.

″Most of the worst errors in this exhibition are our own,″ says director Sir David M. Wilson.

″It’s not surprising as we have been collecting for a long time as museums go, nearly 250 years. The forgers had more than a head start as they were busy in ancient Babylon 3,000 years ago,″ he said.

Wilson admits: ″There is a horrid fascination about fakes. Although we sweep them under the carpet, we talk about them all the time because we know we as experts are fallible.″

The first thing visitors see is a supposed Etruscan tomb of the 6th century B.C., made about 120 years ago.

″The British Museum bought the tomb from an Italian dealer in 1871 because the Louvre had one and we were jealous,″ said Dr. Susan Walker, an antiquities expert.

″Within a year of the purchase, the inscription on the lid was found to have been copied from a gold brooch in the Louvre, but the tomb was kept on show until 1935 and has appeared in countless books on the Etruscans and their art,″ she said.

Mark Jones, an expert on coins and medals who assembled the fakes from 26 museums in Britain and abroad, said the exhibition was ″about deception, about lying things whenever and wherever they are made.″

″It’s evidence of what people saw and valued in the art of the past because a faked antique shows much more clearly than the real thing what collectors valued. Fakes often reflect what people want to believe,″ he said.

″When we fall in love we aren’t totally rational in assessing our loved one’s qualities,″ Jones said. ″You can fall in love with an object but others will see through it because they don’t share your love for it.″

The show demonstrates how fakes are exposed by electron microscopes, ultraviolet light, X-rays and radiocarbon dating.

The British Museum’s own archaeologists in 1881 brought back a Babylonian inscription from what is now Iraq. It speaks of the renovation of a temple and the large revenues it received from the king and ends up saying, ″This is not a lie, it is indeed the truth.″

But modern studies showed it was a lie, written in about 1,000 B.C. and purporting to be 1,000 years older, probably by priests who wanted to strengthen their temple’s claim to its rights and income.

The letter of Christ appears in the ″Ecclesiastical History″ of Eusebius, known as the father of church history, who was probably born in Palestine about 313 and became a bishop.

In the invented letter, Christ blesses King Abgar for his belief in Christ’s miraculous cures.

Then there’s the furry trout.

A Scotsma wrote home from Canada in the 17th century about the abundance of ″furried animals and fish.″ Asked to provide an example of furry fish he obliged - and a modern Canadian is still at it, putting rabbit fur on stuffed trout, with a text saying fish in great depths and penetrating cold grow a dense coat of protective fur.

″One of these fish was brought to us by someone who thought it was genuine,″ said Geoffrey Swinney of the Royal Museum of Scotland.

″We said it was a hoax and sent him away but the story had got out and public demand to see the furry fish was so strong that we had to make one - a fake twice over.″

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