False Gods: 'Ancient' Forgeries Fool Art Markets

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Archeologists and art experts are concerned about a wave of forgeries that have appeared on the art market. The fakes are meeting the growing demand for collectable art from the global jet set, but even the museums are being fooled.

The packed auction room at Sotheby's in New York was filled with feverish anticipation when, on June 7, 2007, assistants wearing white gloves rolled a delicate bronze statue about a meter (39 inches) tall into the room. According to the auction catalog, the bronze sculpture, titled "Artemis and the Stag," was a depiction of the Roman goddess of the hunt.

The sculpture was of a young girl with shining eyes, the folds of her knee-length robe draped suggestively over her body. A spokesman for the auction house raved about the sculpture, calling it "among the most beautiful works of art surviving from antiquity." The masterpiece promptly set off a vigorous bidding war.

A man from the sheikdom of Qatar offered the first bid, and an unknown man wearing a suit promptly countered with a higher bid. After that the bidding went up in $100,000 (€69,000) increments with each wave of a hand. When the duel stalled at $12 million, a new bidder seated at the rear of the room suddenly joined the fray.

The auctioneer's hammer finally came down with a bang at $25.5 million ($28.6 million, including the Sotheby's fee). The sculpture went to Giuseppe Eskenazi, a 68-year-old London art dealer, who promptly had the valuable piece flown to mainland Europe for his unidentified client.

It was the highest price every paid for a Roman sculpture. Even Sotheby's called the sale "absolutely astonishing."

But the new owner, rumored to be a Russian, could soon be disappointed. In a report SPIEGEL has obtained, Stefan Lehmann, an archeologist from the eastern German city of Halle, raises doubts about the piece. He is troubled by the "unexpressive face and seemingly perfect condition" of the sculpture. At first glance, writes Lehmann, the sculpture reminds him of a "classical work from the period around 1800."

Josef Floren, the German author of a handbook titled "The Greek Sculpture," is also skeptical. The "box-shaped base" on which the goddess is standing seems "modern." Floren is also perplexed by the clothing the young woman is wearing. "Something resembling a shawl or a veil is draped across her shoulders. No one in Rome walked around like that."

Could comments like these spell the beginning of a major scandal in the art world?

A museum in Hamburg was surprised to learn last December that the Chinese terracotta warriors on display in its "Power of Death" exhibition were fakes.
REUTERS

A museum in Hamburg was surprised to learn last December that the Chinese terracotta warriors on display in its "Power of Death" exhibition were fakes.

The suspicions about the bronze are not unfounded. Experts have noticed an increase in counterfeit art for some time. The forgers skillfully solder together hollow bronze sculptures, shape classical faces and imitate Hellenistic casting techniques. Acids are used to create the patinas.

In early 2005, Robin Symes, a major London art dealer, was sentenced to seven months in prison for an offence unrelated to art forgery. Symes, who had himself chauffeured around in a Rolls Royce, followed the jet set around the world, typically spending February in the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, March in the Bahamas, a few days in the spring at a beauty clinic in Montreux and the summer in Greece.

When he wasn't hanging out with the jet set, Symes ran a successful antiquities business. At the time of his arrest, he owned 33 warehouses filled with treasures worth an estimated €180 million. His storehouses were also considered one of the main venues for forged art.

Prison sentences were also handed down to Briton Shaun Greenhalgh, 46, and his gang of forgers last November. The group had produced a fake statue of an Egyptian princess and claimed that it was from Amarna, the royal seat of the Pharaoh Akhenaten.

But the arrests have not put an end to the wave of forgeries of recent years.

Art forgers' favorite subjects are sculptures from the golden age of antiquity. The statues of perfectly shaped athletes once lined the athletic buildings and temples of the Greeks and Romans, whose sculptors worked mainly in marble and bronze. Most of these pieces were eventually destroyed or melted down.

But the modern art market demands a constant influx of new product. Brokers and hedge fund managers deal in Egyptian and Hellenistic antiquities as if they were bales of tobacco on a commodities exchange.

For years, it was only Impressionist paintings that were achieving record prices, but prices for antiquities have entered the same rarefied range more recently, as wealthy Chinese and Russian oil and gas millionaires enter the market. And in 2002 oil billionaire Sheikh Saud al-Thani of Qatar bought a naked Roman Venus at auction in Christie's of London for more than €12 million.

The interest in antiquities has spread across an unprecedented geographic range, says Edward Dolman, the director of Christie's, which now has offices in Shanghai, Beijing and Mumbai.

The last auction of the winter season at Sotheby's, on Dec. 5, 2007, marked the current high point of the speculative boom. The auction house was offering a 5,000-year-old limestone lioness, all of eight centimeters (three inches) tall, which had been excavated near Baghdad. The piece sold for $57.2 million.

At these prices, forgers can plan well in advance. According to Christoph Leon, an art dealer in Basel, Switzerland, it takes at least "a million euros in advance financing" to create a replica of a life-sized bronze sculpture.

Forgers concoct elaborate accounts of the origins of these fake Aphrodites and Apollos to boost their credibility when launching them into the marketplace. "Two studios in southern Europe" are especially active, says one insider, "one in Italy and the other in Spain."

Art forgers have little trouble selling their artfully crafted fakes. The nave and poorly educated nouveau riche globalization has helped produce, people who see the world of esthetics purely as an investment or status symbol, are easily fooled.

Surprisingly, true art lovers haven't fared much better. In the course of his life Elie Borowski (1913 to 2003), a multimillionaire and expert on Semitic cultures, amassed an extraordinary private collection of antique glass objects, cylinder seals and Roman sculptures, which he left to the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.

All too often, unfortunately, the astute collector was taken for a ride. According to Josef Floren, the German expert on Greek sculpture, "every other statuette in the Borowski collection is a forgery."

Even government-run museums are not immune to fraud. In 1979, for example, a gilded statue of Hercules was offered to the Antikensammlung ("Antique Collection") in Kassel. Excited museum officials traveled to Switzerland to view the sculpture in a bank vault in Zurich. It depicted the demigod wearing a lion's skin and carrying a cudgel on his shoulder.

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