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Counterfeit Antique Chic

If you were "as rich as Croesus," would you wear costume jewelry?

Apparently the original King Croesus preferred the real thing -- and would probably not have been pleased that an undisclosed number of objects representing his 6th century BCE reign have been stolen from a Turkish museum and replaced with fakes.  Among the missing items from the collection, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned to Turkey in 1993, is the winged seahorse broach at left. 

Counterfeit Chic asks, "What's the big deal?"  Or, to put it somewhat more eloquently, why does it matter whether an artifact under glass in a museum is the real thing or a virtually identical copy? 

Archaeologists or historians will plausibly argue that only the real thing -- whatever that thing happens to be -- can truly yield information about ancient creative techniques or be subjected to scientific tests to determine age, composition, etc.  But for most of us, an expert replica is equally informative.  Why, then, would we make a special trip to see an historic object but hardly glance at the version in the museum shop?

Alexander Stille takes on this question in his book, The Future of the Past, describing the common Chinese practice of making and displaying museum-quality copies of artifacts -- and the culture clashes that can ensue when Western curators refuse to accept these substitutes in traveling exhibits. 

The concept of "authenticity" is complex, evolving, and culturally determined.  For many of us, there is an intuitive preference for an original over a copy, even when we are objectively unable to tell the difference.  In the case of the golden broach, there is a qualitative difference between real gold and gold-colored metal, but in a museum display the properties of gold versus a substitute are irrelevant. 

At the end of the day, it is often the item's totemic value that matters -- the little winged seahorse has touched history, perhaps even adorned the body of a celebrated figure from the past.  Turkey wanted it back from the Met, and the Usak Archaeological Museum wants it back now, for much the same reason that people bid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the faux pearls previously owned by Jackie Kennedy. 

Reality may be relative, but it carries a high price.

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» Museum-Quality Fakes from Counterfeit Chic
Counterfeit Chic has previously pondered why it is that museums and museum-goers prefer the display of original works over copies, particularly when the vast majority of viewers can't tell the difference.  Apparently the Nassau County Art Mus... [Read More]