A third of the Coptic sculptures at the Brooklyn Museum of Art are modern fakes. Its collection of late Egyptian sculpture was, until now, the second largest in North America. Brooklyn curator Dr Edna Russmann, who is concluding a study of the works, warns that other museums which acquired Coptic sculptures in the past 50 years are likely to face similar problems.
The unmasking of the forgeries will be revealed in an exhibition on “Coptic Sculpture in the Brooklyn Museum”, opening on 13 February 2009. Ten of Brooklyn’s 30 sculptures are now deemed to be complete fakes, with over half the remainder having been recarved and repainted in modern times.
The fakes were mainly bought in the 1960s and 70s, and can be traced back to major antiquities dealers in New York and in Switzerland, to where they were shipped from Egypt. Dr Russmann believes that the dismissal of these works will encourage scholars to “re-evaluate Coptic art”.
What is striking about the fakes is that they place a greater emphasis on Christian iconography than the authentic works. This reflects market demand for such imagery in Europe and North America.
The Brooklyn forgeries include a limestone relief of the paralytic who was healed by Christ, with a fragment of the cured cripple carrying a bed on his back. Dr Russmann dismisses it as “a total fabrication”. There seem to be no other examples of this subject in early Middle Eastern Christian iconography, although it has some parallels with later Italian art. The relief was bought in 1962.
Brooklyn also has a female bust purporting to be Holy Wisdom, holding an orb and staff. The figure is oddly proportioned, as is the arched lunette above it. Again the iconography is surprising, since in very early Christian art the staff and orb are only shown in the hands of archangels, who are male and winged. The bust was purchased in 1958, which seems to be the year when the fakes first surfaced on the international market.
A third sculpture apparently depicts the Holy Family, with a woman cradling a child under one arch and a man under another. Again, both the workmanship and proportions are poor, and the stone is of poor quality. It was acquired in 1963, as was another fake sculpture of a standing woman holding a crudely-carved cross.
Six other Brooklyn sculptures are being dismissed as fakes, with all but one of them acquired between 1960-72 (one came in 1940). In addition to these, the museum has found that at least half of its genuine examples were partially (and in some cases very extensively) recarved and repainted in modern times. Probably fewer than ten remain relatively untouched by recent “improvements”.
Although Brooklyn’s conservators have made a preliminary examination of their Coptic sculptures, decisions on authenticity have been made primarily on connoisseurship, relying on style and iconography.
Early Coptic (or Christian) Egyptian sculptures, date from the late fourth century AD to the Arab invasion of 641, and are nearly always made of local limestone. They were created as funerary memorials or church decorations, and display a mixture of pagan and Christian influences. The number of surviving authentic sculptures is probably around 1,000. Examples from early excavations (such as those at the British Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which has the largest US collection) are authentic. Later finds need to be treated with caution.
The fakes were first noted in the 1970s by Dr Gary Vikan, a Byzantine scholar (and now director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore). However, apart from a few paragraphs in a small 1981 exhibition catalogue, his findings were never published.
The current specialist in Coptic sculpture is New York University’s Professor Thelma Thomas, who only alludes to the problem of the fakes in her book Late Antique Egyptian Funerary Sculpture in a footnote. She and Dr Vikan have provided advice to Brooklyn.
Although known by specialists, the problem of Coptic fakes has never really been discussed publicly. From time to time museums have downgraded individual examples, but these have simply been quietly removed from display. The Brooklyn Museum seems to be the first institution to tackle the problem systematically and openly.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Dr Vikan explained that the fakes appeared to have originated from the village of Sheikh ‘Ibada (ancient Antinoöpolis), south of Cairo. He believes that “hundreds” were later acquired by museums in North America (including Princeton University Art Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC) and Europe, particularly in Germany (including Berlin State Museums and the Icon Museum in Recklinghausen).
The acceptance of fakes has distorted our concept of Coptic art. Apart from the sculptures there are no other surviving forms of large-scale art (by far the most important works in museums are textiles). To take an example of the distorting influence, Brooklyn’s female figure of Holy Wisdom was used in a Cleveland Museum of Art publication to help explain a textile motif.
The Coptic sculptures which emerged around the 1960s were originally hailed as representing one of the largest groups of sculpture to have survived anywhere from the early Christian era. They were also viewed as an artistic bridge between pagan and Christian cultures, and as evidence of the continuity of large-scale figure sculpture from the classical period. It now turns out most of them are fake.