A Question of Authenticity
Why do we care if something is authentic? Authentic objects are valued for their rarity, beauty, and age, or for their associations with past places, peoples, and ideals.
For as long as people have valued art, there has been incentive to make copies, imitations, and fakes. Copies are made to represent originals that are not available because of loss, distance, and other factors. Fakes are made with the intention to deceive. Meant to be mistaken for something treasured, fakes are often made for profit and sometimes to falsify the past in order to legitimize or glorify the present.
Even legitimate copies can be deceptive, however. The distinctions among originals, copies, and fakes are often obscured over time or intentionally distorted by third parties.
Pastiches and Restorations
As far as the art market is concerned, the value of the proverbial whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is the incentive for people to make pastiches (objects assembled from parts of more than one original) and restorations, both of which contain some authentic material but have substantial amounts of inauthentic material as well. Replacing relatively small missing parts is generally considered acceptable if these can be detected upon close examination. But reproducing a large portion of an object or combining unrelated fragments to produce what looks like a single, whole object is fraudulent unless the object is presented as a restoration.
Research and the passage of time can provide new insights into objects. Something once considered authentic may later be determined a fake, just as something once regarded as a fake might be determined authentic. A fake can accumulate a history that makes authenticity seem credible. For example, a letter written by a respected art dealer in the 1930s attests to the authenticity of the Cambodian-style standing stone figure of Avalokiteshvara above. But modern stylistic studies have exposed this work almost surely to be a fake. Many of its features cannot be matched to genuine works of its type and show up only on other works known or thought to be fake.
It is a museum’s responsibility to present an accurate record of the past for all who value authenticity—including art historians, archaeologists, collectors, dealers, and the general public.