Fine Art Forgeries

Playing criminologist at the Asian Art Museum

Prior to its 2003 reopening, the Asian Art Museum discovered a funny thing about its collection: Some of the pieces were fake. A 900-year-old bowl from Iran, for instance, was uncovered as a "pastiche" made up of random bits of other 900-year-old bowls. The museum also had to relabel some pieces as imitations, not so much forgeries as efforts to honor the past, such as China's 1,000-year-old Song Dynasty paying tribute to the 3,000-year-old Shang Dynasty by cranking out a bronze vessel in the ancient style. (Lacking the proper notes, historians eventually mistook the copy for an original.)

Though all this may seem like a black eye for the museum, it's not. Forgeries are as common as salt, and determining authenticity can be a dicey affair, with ever more sophisticated methods needed to clarify uncertain histories and unmask clever criminal minds. Rather than leave its findings to disappear into gossip, the Asian Art Museum issued a press release and organized an engaging exhibit exposing its own gullibility: "Fakes, Copies, and Question Marks: Forensic Investigations of Asian Art."

Curated by Donna Strahan, head of conservation at the museum, the show contains more than 40 objects, and it doesn't give up the secrets too quickly. Often the fake and the real are grouped together, unlabeled, and visitors get to play criminologist, studying the methods of investigation and attempting to spot the forgeries. In the museum's South Court, two large 500-year-old bronze Buddha sculptures open the exhibition, but guests have to wait until they get to the upstairs gallery to learn which is fake. An ultraviolet light that visitors control exposes the deception in the Iranian pastiche bowl. And a stone statue of the Buddhist deity Avalokitesvara comes with a letter from a respected dealer in the 1930s -- a nice touch, but the piece is still a forgery.

X-rays reveal the fakery in this Iranian bowl.
X-rays reveal the fakery in this Iranian bowl.


Opens Saturday, Sept. 25 (and runs through March 27, 2005)

Admission is free-$10


Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin (at McAllister), S.F.

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Museum conservators did much of the detective work, drawing on their knowledge of dirt accumulation, wear patterns, and phony evidence such as added soiling and cracks. Studying whether construction methods were in keeping with particular historical periods revealed other chicanery -- a gold Buddha from Korea's Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), for example, shows tool marks from a jeweler's saw far too advanced for the era.

Scientific analysis took over when standard scrutiny faltered, with techniques such as fluorescent and polarized light microscopy, carbon-14 dating, X-ray fluorescence, inductively coupled plasma-atomic emission spectrometry, and other cool-sounding (and complicated) approaches. For instance, thermoluminescence testing -- a method of dating works by irradiating stone or pottery and measuring the light it gives off -- revealed the age of the ceramics in two extremely rare stag vessels. One dates from the second millennium B.C.E.; the other from the 20th century.

As the show proves, authentication is a murky business. Just ask those hapless souls studying Bush's military service records.

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