The Brooklyn Museum, which recently announced its prized collection of stone sculptures from ancient Egypt was cluttered with fakes, is planning an exhibit with these pieces to raise awareness of forgeries in the world's art collections.
"We really have to face the fact that mistakes are made in museums just as they are made anywhere else," Edna Russmann, curator of the museum's Egyptian, classical, and ancient Middle Eastern art, said this week. "Museums are in the habit of hiding these things away."
The exhibit, "Unearthing the Truth: Egypt's Pagan and Coptic Sculpture," is set to open next February.
Russmann says she was long suspicious about some of the museum's 4th to 6th century Coptic, or Christian Egyptian sculptures, acquired before she joined the museum. Some scholars had already raised doubts about their authenticity and several years ago she decided to put the question to rest.
A three-year inquiry found that of the 31 Coptic sculptures, most were either retouched in some way or entirely fake. Some were repainted or reworked, and about a third were modern forgeries made of Egyptian stone.
Russmann said it is probably too late to find out who made the fakes, but the show could prompt other museums around the world to take a closer look at their collections.
"Any museum in this country and most of the important museums in Europe who have Coptics have the bad along with good," she said.
Gary Vikan, who first questioned the sculptures' authenticity back in the 1970s, said the show could provide a lesson on questioning assumptions as well as authority.
"Whether it's because we've paid for it or someone with a fancy degree said it was genuine, once we make a decision, everything that happens after that gets piled in one basket, and that is to vindicate the decision," said Vikan, now a director at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, known for its massive collection of Egyptian art, is confident about the authenticity of its Coptic sculptures as they were excavated in the early 20th century, before fakes began circulating.
But Helen Evans, the Metropolitan's curator for Byzantine art and responsible for its Coptic collection, said even experienced researchers can be deceived.
"I think in practical terms we have much better equipment for conservation studies, and we would now ask more questions, but you can never be really sure," she said.
Vikan said distinguishing fakes depends on connoisseurship but sometimes a gut feeling indicates something is amiss.
"If someone has a glass eye, you can tell that something isn't quite right, and a work of art is not so different. It has a kind of integrity," he said.