Art Forgeries: Are Museums Powerless To Prevent Them?
Last March, the Dallas Museum of Art learned that its monumental Veracruz sculptures, thought to be a thousand years old. were fakes created by a forty-five-year-old Mexican ceramist named Brigido Lara-and without benefit of reincarnation. Lara, interviewed for a profile in Connoisseur, also claimed as his own a piece from the Metropolitan in New York and three others from the St. Louis Museum. If Lara is telling the truth-and many respected art historians believe he is, though the DMA is awaiting test results-the revelations raise embarrassing questions.
But according to two members of SMU’s Department of Anthropology, those who acquired the Lara pieces need feel no shame in their error. The processes used to assign dates to ceramic work are complicated and inexact. Dr. Patricia Crown, whose research specialty is ceramic analysis, studies the composition of pottery made in the Southwestern United States as a way to trace exchange networks among prehistoric Indians. "What I look for," she says, "is the odd pot that doesn’t fit in, the one made of materials not locally available." In the case of the Veracruz forgeries, Lara says he worked the same clays used by his pre-Columbian predecessors. Lara so skillfully imitated the ancient techniques that in 1974 he was arrested on suspicion of "looting" sculptures that he had created himself.
Crown says another technique used for authenticating ceramics- thermoluminescence-is also uncertain. Dr. Herbert Haas, director of SMU’s Radiocarbon Laboratory, agrees. For a thermoluminescence test, a little piece of the object in question has to be removed in low light conditions and ground up, much to the chagrin of museum curators, who risk damaging a piece that could be authentic. Next, the clay sample must be heated in a furnace, at which time the amount of light released from the sample can be measured to determine whether the clay was fired recently or long ago. At best, the test can indicate whether a piece has been recently subjected to extreme heat. Had Lara not spilled the beans to Connoisseur, it is likely that the fakes would have remained unquestioned. After all. their credentials were impeccable, their whereabouts verifiable from the time art dealer Bill Pearson witnessed their unearthing in 1957 until the Dallas Museum took title to them in 1982.
So are collectors and curators alike helpless against the formidable fakery of a Brigido Lara? Not quite, suggests Dr. David Freidel, a specialist in Maya art and culture. "We could slop acquiring such pieces altogether,"’ he says, "and put an end to the market for forgeries. Exhibits such as The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Maya Art that came to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth serve all the educational purposes of a museum and permit the art of a country to stay in its possession.