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Questions of Authenticity

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, apparent date range 1250–1350. Cambodia. Sandstone. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S374.

Once considered authentic, this standing stone Avalokiteshvara is now thought almost surely to be a fake. Many of its features cannot be matched among genuine works and are only found on other works known or thought to be fake. Since there is no scientific test presently available for determining when a stone was carved, its authenticity remains in doubt.

Standing Buddha, apparent date range 1500–1600

Standing Buddha, apparent date range 1500–1600. Central Thailand. Copper alloy. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S364.

Is this a happy marriage? Stylistically this Buddha just did not seem right to the curators. Though it is of a fairly common type, some of its details raised questions. The facial features are somewhat sweeter and more delicate than is usual for images of this type. The stringlike decorative designs on the crown appear sharper (and thus perhaps less worn) than those on the jeweled collar. Evidence around the neck and arms reveals that the image has been restored several times. Examination under a binocular microscope shows long-term burial corrosion on the body of the image but no corrosion on the head. Separate samples of the clay core material from inside the head and body were sent for thermoluminescence (TL) testing. The results confirmed that the head is modern and the body is from the sixteenth century.

Because any image used for worship in Thailand must be complete, the head may have been added in order to make this image worthy of devotion rather than to create an intentional fake. On the other hand, a dealer may have had an artisan marry the two parts with the intent to deceive. On the art market a complete object is usually much more valuable than any of its pieces.

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Standing Buddha, apparent date range 1500–1600

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.

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