ROM Forgery Exhibit Looks for the Real Deal
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ROM Forgery Exhibit Looks for the Real Deal

An Egyptian relief fragment depicting the head of Pharaoh Montuphotep (11th Dynasty, 2040–1963 BCE) and a fake fragment depicting the head of a pharaoh (twentieth century). On the fake, the carving of the facial features is very coarse and the crown of Upper Egypt is misrepresented. It should have covered the nape of the pharaoh’s neck, as depicted on the authentic fragment. The genuine relief is much more cohesive and detailed in depicting Montuphotep’s facial features.

The next time you think about buying a bootlegged item, you might want to pay the Royal Ontario Museum a visit, starting on January 9.
Why hand over more of your money when there’s no appreciable impact on anyone except those who would charge more for the real thing, right? But Paul Denis, curator of “Fakes & Forgeries: Yesterday and Today,” doesn’t back that argument. The exhibit, running until April 4, presents more than a hundred objects dating as far back as 505 million years and up to the present day and invites visitors to test their detective skills to spot the knock-offs.

A Tanagra figurine of a standing woman (250–225 BCE, Greece) and a fake nineteenth-century knock-off. Differing from the forgery, the real figurine’s features are delicate, with the finely rendered folds falling vertically. The figurine’s hair is also positioned in the traditional “melon” style of the period. The light orange-brown clay is also the right colour for a true Tanagra figurine.

“I thought it would be a great idea to have an exhibit like this dealing with antiquities,” says Denis, who also doubles as assistant curator of the Greek, Roman, Etruscan, and Byzantine exhibits at the ROM. “And then the idea of it evolved a bit to include contemporary items that are plaguing the market. Whether it’s a fake Greek statue, a Mexican urn, or a pair of Gucci jeans, nothing is sacred anymore. There’s a price to pay. These items go on the black market, so nothing gets taxed, and those taxes can be used for healthcare and building roads.”
One of the exhibit’s objectives, says Denis, is to show the tremendous social cost of forgeries and bootlegging, particularly in modern times. The twenty-first-century items on-hand, Denis says, will include counterfeit money, information-theft software, and unsafe sports equipment bearing bogus Canadian Standards Association logos.
“Some of these counterfeits can kill you,” says Denis. “The really scary ones are the medicine and food fakes; things like counterfeit Viagra, breast cancer drugs, medicine that gets shipped to the impoverished in Africa, and it’ll be nothing: just water. That’s really the ultimate low, faking food and medicine—the most sinister and evil.”

Authentic urn in the shape of a seated male (Zapotec culture, 200-500 CE, Mexico), and a fake urn in the shape of Cocijo, god of rain (Zapotec style, early twentieth century, Mexico). The real and fake urns were determined through thermoluminescence dating, a test measuring how long ago something would have been fired in a kiln. Genuine urns have been found with burnt plant and animal remains inside, likely offerings for the dead.

Denis notes there has been a market for trickery of this kind for quite some time, particularly in areas where antiquities were and continue to be discovered. Pointing to the breakout of “Egyptomania” following the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, wealthy patrons around the world were willing to pay a pretty penny to get ancient objects from the region. With a huge demand and a very finite supply to satisfy it, knock-off makers and sellers saw their chance.
“There’s a big market for antiquities and ancient art, as well as collectibles, such as fossils,” Denis says. “When there’s money to be made, and the number of these items start to decrease, the forger steps in.”
All images and photo captions courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum.