Museum Embraces Coptic Fakes

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Modern fakes of ancient art will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art early next year. Many of the museum's Egyptian Coptic sculptures have proved to be forgeries. Curator Edna Russmann talks about the fakes and why she's putting them on display.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

We all know the cliché about making lemonade out of lemons. Well, here's a story about making an art exhibit out of forgeries. See, the Brooklyn Museum of Art has a prized collection of Egyptian Coptic sculptures - those are statues that date back as far as the fourth century.

Well, it turns out a third of the pieces in the collection are fakes - one-third of them. So, what's a respected museum to do, hey, embrace it. The Brooklyn Museum will put the fakes, along with the real ones, on display early next year.

Edna Russmann is the curator for the exhibit. First of all, describe the real sculptures for us.

Ms. EDNA RUSSMANN (Curator, Brooklyn Museum of Art): It's hard to describe them without inadvertently describing most of the fakes as well. They're all made of Egyptian limestone, which is fairly soft, fairly easily carved stone.

SEABROOK: What are the sculptures of?

Ms. RUSSMANN: Some of them are portraits of the deceased person. Then others are decorations that were placed in the tomb or in front of the tomb. This is one of the problems that we have almost no information about the buildings or the type of building that any of these reliefs came from.

SEABROOK: So, how can you tell that the fake ones are fake?

Ms. RUSSMANN: Well, interestingly enough, the decision really is more on the basis of style.

SEABROOK: That's interesting because these days you hear about carbon dating the stone or looking at the little chip of paint off of it and comparing that the real ones. But this is - you have not done it that way.

Ms. RUSSMANN: No, not very much. As I say, it is all the same stone and in fact I'm quite sure that some of our forgeries started out as the very broken remnants of what has once been ancient.

SEABROOK: So, what's different about the forgeries? What's the stylistic difference?

Ms. RUSSMANN: Well, it's a little bit different in every single case. For example, we have a rather small relief that shows the Virgin Mary and child under one side of a pair of arches and on the other side is a man, who presumably is Joseph, and that's a forgery.

SEABROOK: How can you tell?

Ms. RUSSMANN: They're terribly done. They're about the worst of our forgeries. This poor guy, I think he couldn't even afford any good stone. They were done in a very coarse stone with lots of holes that he might have thought would make it look ancient.

SEABROOK: How did the Brooklyn Museum go about buying these if, as you say, some of them are really bad?

Ms. RUSSMANN: Everyone was buying them. It was after the Second World War when Coptic stones reliefs and sculptures came pouring out of Egypt. Of course, that was in the days before there were any laws about this. A lot of them are good and with them came a certain proportion of forgeries.

So, it was all mixed up, and that's one reason why it took even the specialists so long to figure out what was going on.

SEABROOK: Edna Russmann is curator of the upcoming exhibit of ancient Egyptian sculpture, both the real and the fake. It's scheduled to open next February at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

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