"FAKE" - Forgeries of Ancient Goldwork

Barbara Deppert Lippitz
(Art and Heritage Expert at the) Industrie- und Handelskammer, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Fakes made in all materials occasionally turn up on the art market. It usually does not take long to find out what they are. Nothing, however, seems to be more suspect than a gold item and quite often ancient goldwork is suspected not to be authentic. The reasons for this attitude are primarily psychological. Gold continues to have the mythic aspect it already had in antiquity. The yellow metal fascinates and at the same time frightens people and particularly scholars who do not have any experience in examining ancient or forged gold object. When someone feels insecure, condemming a piece of goldwork is easier than proving, that it is genuine. Finally, there have been and there are excellent fakes of ancient goldwork which to exposte need knowledge and experience.

Faking ancient goldwork started in the early 19th century in Italy and was inspired by the rich finds of Greek, Etruscan and, Roman jewellery that were discovered during this period. The commercial success of the earlier forgers led to further production not only in Italy but in various parts of the ancient world, from the Lebanon to Spain and from Southern Russia to Egypt.. The output varied depending on the talent and of the activity of forgers anc continues until today.

Serious research on ancient goldwork started nearly a century after the production of fakes, in the first decades of the 20th century. Scholars immediately realized that understanding ancient goldwork required a very good knowledge of the techniques. The catalogue of the ancient jewellery in the British Museum, published in 1911, includes a chapter on the "Technical Processes Employed om the Production of Ancient Jewellery", that is still worth reading. Particularly after R. Higgins publication of a handbook on Greek and Roman Jewellery in 1960, with ist excellent update on techniques, scholars, collectors and museums focused more and more on the technical analysis of ancient goldwork. This analysis was considered to be more objective than stylistic considerations, inspite of the fact that already in 1965 the exhibition and the catalogue "Greek Gold, Jewelry of the Age of Alexander the Great, had shown, that techniques are easier to imitate than style.

Scholars got so impressed by the technical studies, that they were against publishing the results of studies on anicent techniques as it would help forgers to avoid errors . They did not realize, that skilled forgers already practiced these techniques and most likely sometimes found the published studies quite amusing. The real change and most likely the greatest achievement in the study of ancient goldwork was the introduction of the scientific analysis.

A forger who intends to produce a piece of goldwok that looks as if it were made in antiquity, no matter where or when, has to have considerable skill and experience in working gold, a fair knowledge of the types and shapes of one or various periods of ancient art, and of the techniques and of decorative design of the period to which the pieces he intends to make is meant to belong. And he has to have a sense for business to keep his efforts and the financial results in balance. . It is romantic nonsense to believe that a forger might want to create a fake only for his own pleasure and satisfaction.. Fakes are made for profit which does not exclude that the forger might get some professional satisfaction out of it.

Before he starts, the forger has to invest money for the material he is going to use and he has to be able to acquire this material which in countries in which the possession of gold is controlled is not always easy. And he has to invest time in planning, studying prototypes, producing the object and finally even to give it the appearance of a certain age. Once these conditions are fulfilled, he has the following options, each of them holding certain risks

  • 1. he can produce an exact copy of an existing ancient object - but should better avoid this because it will soon be obvious that his product is an imitation.
  • 2. he can imitate an existing ancient object but vary it by changing details or combining various elements so that it looks similar to something known as ancient and yet different. This is the most common way of producing fakes, but by following it he risks that the details might look genuine, but false in their totality.
  • 3. He can produce his own creation, inspired by ancient prototypes and executed in a technique that at least resembles ancient techniques , but without direct prototype. This concept allows a particularly large numbe of errors.

A forger is aware that a stylistic or a technical error will expose his work as a fake and he will try to avoid them. But as he is working for profit he will be tempted to use time-saving short cuts and modern methods, which will lead to technical errors, he can not spent the time and most likely does not have the education to study carefully stylistic aspects, and he will tend to repeat something he already successfully faked. Repetetions are the sure way to detection.

While the forger is determined to deceive, the scholar and particularly the expert in ancient goldwork is determined to detect the forger`s errors. Only close acquaintance with both genuine and spurious objects can give a faculty for detecting fakes. The more ancient objecst the scholar has actually handled and studied under a microscope, the more familiar he is with the material, the less likely he will be deceived by fakes. With some experience, with knowledge of the development of goldwork and with the help of goldsmiths and conservator he will become familiar with ancient techniques. With sufficient experience he will have studied such a wide range of ancient and faked goldwork that he will reach a point where he will find it difficult to express in words what makes him doubt the piece in question. It might be the general form, some detail or a small artistic inconsistency.

What definitely does not help in detecting fakes are merely theoretical historical or archaelogical considerations. Archaeology is full of surprises and even in controlled excavations archaeologists are constantly faced with unexpected finds which they can not discard because they do not fit into their historial or archaeological picture.

Objects have to be actually examined before they can be declared authntic or fake. Modern scientific methods of analysis, technological inspection and our ever-increasing knowledge of antiquity have improved the detection of fakes. When these three completelydifferent ways of research arrive at exactly the same point, we can rely on the result being correct. Most likely no other group of ancient goldwork has been more thoroughly examined by scientists, technologists and scholars in various countries and various institutions than the Dacian gold spirals with dragon terminals. In each case and completely independent from each other, the examination led to the same conclusion.

The research on these spirals has set an example for further research of ancient goldwork.