Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Olokun Head (and museum fakes)

The art world is full of fakes, some of which surprise us and are ‘discovered’ to be genuine. Perhaps the most difficult artist to authenticate is Salvador Dali, because it seems clear he himself was helping to create his own fakes. He is thought to have signed some 280,000 sheets of blank paper in his lifetime, and in fact signed his name so many times that it deteriorated to the extent that experts now have great difficult authenticating the real thing.

But fakes in the museum world are much less common (we think!). “Piltdown Man” is perhaps the most famous. Thought to be the fossilised fragments of a skull and jawbone of a previously unknown human when collected in a gravel pit in 1912 in Piltdown, Sussex, it was not until 1953 that it was exposed as a forgery, being the lower jawbone of an orang-utan deliberately combined with the skull of a modern human.

Piltdown is a classic example of academics desperate to find the missing link between apes and humans overcoming sheer common sense. The man now thought to have perpetrated the fraud was Charles Dawson, a local antiquarian collector. Checking his details in Wikipedia I was amazed to find he made an artform of such finds including such wonderfully named items as the Beauport Park Roman Statuette (a hybrid iron object), the Brighton ‘Toad in the hole’ (a toad entombed in a flint), the so called ‘Shadowy figures’ on the walls of Hastings Castle and the Bulverhythe Hammer. Tell me more, please!

On a more serious note the latest edition of the Art Newspaper ( www.theartnewspaper.com ) carries an interesting account of the Olokun Head (“Is the Olokun Head the real thing?”). The life size Olokun head was found by a German anthropologist Leo Frobenius in 1910 near Ife, Nigeria. The bronze is believed to be the head of a king, made about 1400, but at the time of discovery was considered to be too great a masterpiece to have been created by African hands, a reflection of attitudes at the time. It was seized almost immediately by the British Colonial administration on the grounds it was sacred and eventually placed in the Ife Museum.

But in 1948 when it travelled to the British Museum it was declared to be a replica. Was it always a fake therefore, or was the original copied either by Frobenius before handing it over, or before it reached the Ife Museum, with the original sold to a European North American Collector?

However now that it is on show again (“The Kingdom of Ife” currently at the British Museum and due to travel to 4 museums in the US in 2011), there are questions being raised as to whether it is actually the original after all. The BM’s conservators are undertaking X-ray fluorescence and thermo luminescence testing and microscopic analysis to determine the precise metal content, the casting technique, and the form of tools used.

A copy or the real thing? Hopefully all will soon be revealed.

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