While many have investigated media constructions of ‘newsworthy’ and ‘non-newsworthy’ crimes and their victims, the overwhelming focus of these analyses has been upon violent crime in its myriad forms. In contrast, this article examines the Canadian print media’s peculiar construction of crime, criminals, and victims in the world of art fraud from 1978 to 2012. Just as art fraud is not thought of as normal ‘crime news’ and is bracketed away elsewhere, the victims of art fraud tend not to be regarded as ideal victims. We note that allegations of art fraud in Australia and elsewhere have occasionally provided a catalytic environment for discussions of ‘who is an “Aboriginal artist”?’, ‘what is “Aboriginal art”?’, and ‘who owns Native culture?’ However, the Canadian print media’s response to allegations of fraud in relation to the art and artistry of Canada’s indigenous peoples suggests how contemplation of these questions can be forestalled.'The Beltracchi Affair: A Comment on the “Most Spectacular” German Art Forgery Case in Recent Times' by Duncan Chappell and Saskia Hufnagel in (2012) 7 The Journal of Art Crime 38-43 [PDF] comments that
On the 27th of October 2011 the four persons accused of the 'most spectacular' art forgery case in German post-war history were sentenced to jail terms ranging from 21 months to 6 years. The accused were Wolfgang Beltracchi (61), the painter of the forged works; his wife Helene Beltracchi (53) and her sister Jeanette Spurzem (54) who helped him in various ways; and the 'logistical expert' in the case, Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus (68). Considering the financial damage the forger group had caused, the embarrassment of buyers, dealers, experts and auction houses, as well as the considerable publicity the trial incurred, this seemed a remarkably mild verdict. However, observing the way in which art forgers at large appear to be dealt with by the justice systems of various countries, it could be said that the case just confirms a reoccurring pattern of lenient sentencing. This article will examine the case and its repercussions.'The Strange Business of Memory: Relic Forgery in Latin America' by Paul Gillingham in (2010) Past and Present (2010) 206 (suppl 5) Past and Present 199-226
surveys assorted cases of relic forgery from colonial and modern Latin America, to argue that such forgeries are (a) particularly widespread in the region; (b) part of a quite formalized sector of the region’s informal economies; and (c) commodities produced by a wide range of elite and non-elite actors. To explain why this should be, it suggests a very schematic typology of relic forgery in Latin America (taken here as a broad, Chicano construct, encompassing parts of California and upstate New York) and attempts a superficial political economy of relic forgery. This last focuses particularly on the modern period, and on the role of archaeology in a strange business: the materialization of memory through fraud.
Forging relics is, as other essays in this volume suggest, a practice that spans a whole range of times, places, and cultures. Some relics, like Mohammed’s toothpick or splinters of the One True Cross—usefully interchangeable, one might think—became ubiquitous precisely because of the ease with which they could be mass-produced. Three hundred men, Luther mocked ponderously, would not have sufficed to carry off all the fragments of the One True Cross. Such forgery is merely a subset of the broader category of artefact and antiquity fraud. There is surprisingly little historical literature on this exotic trade; yet it is, as any curator or collector knows, extremely commonplace. Museum director Thomas Hoving estimated that thirty per cent of the objects offered to the Met were fakes. Even the most knowledgeable collectors, he wrote, would purchase some forgeries over a career’s span, for fakes abounded in every market; antiquity fraud was a ‘massive, truly monumental industry’. Hoving’s choice of ‘industry’ was neither verbal sloppiness nor hyperbole, but a reasonable definition of a complex business bound tightly to the laws of supply and demand. Thus post-war Rome, for example, became a centre of forgery due to a potent combination of strong American demand for antiquities, their relative scarcity and the poverty of restorers, sculptors, and the academics who verified and gave provenances for their fakes. (This was not Rome’s first period of notoriety for art fraud: in the first century AD Seneca the Elder found half a dozen workshops forging Greek jewels and intaglios, while ‘painters’ galleys’ in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mass-produced old masters.) Forgeries can have impacts well beyond a misleadingly labelled display case or a stung collector. The Donation of Constantine lent medieval popes a theocratic claim to temporal jurisdiction that legitimized sweeping land grabs: Pope Adrian IV’s grant of Ireland to England, Pope Alexander VI’s division of the non-European world into Spanish and Portuguese territories. Yet for all that the historical significance of forgeries has been minimized, while the production of fake antiquities has been universal, ubiquitous, and unusually intense in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Certain characteristics of Latin American societies in both colonial and modern periods favoured comparatively widespread artefact fraud. Material incentives for forgers were consistently powerful, whether afforded by fluid property rights or by the proximity of monied consumers in North America. Opportunities for forgers were likewise strong: historically low literacy levels have magnified the power of the inventive, forging minorities, while conquest and kulturkampf in the sixteenth century generated a relative ignorance of the pasts of complex indigenous societies with highly sophisticated material cultures. Artefact fraud has been consequently commonplace. Its production ranges from the banal — Aztec black pottery, a form of deceptive, unlabelled tourist art since at least the 1820s — to the spectacular, such as the Aztec crystal skulls; and from the micro — the Ica stones of Peru, say — to the distinctly macro, whether the pyramid of the sun in Teotihuacán, to which the lead archaeologist added an extra level for aesthetic reasons, or the lost city of Quechmietoplican, a Mesoamerican fantasy dreamed up by nineteenth-century tourist guides on the basis of abandoned mine-workings. By the late nineteenth century forgery was quite literally an industrial process in Mexico, where artisans used high-speed rotary wheels to cut and polish stone and crystal, softened obsidian in petrol baths, soldered together filigree goldwork and, most impressive of all, used galvanization to transform waxwork dummies into copper moulds for production-line baking of ‘prehispanic’ pottery. (The government’s Inspector of Monuments collected over 80 such moulds.) Given the lack of competitiveness in Mexico’s more formal industries —it cost nineteen per cent more to produce a piece of cloth in Veracruz than it did in Manchester— artefact forgery may have been the country’s most successful export industry. By the 1930s, at any rate, purportedly prehispanic artefacts were so ubiquitous in the United States that one archaeologist claimed one of his ‘most frequent sources of Mexican objects’ to be Irondequoit Bay in New York State, where the ‘housewives and widows’ of collectors dumped them. Gringos were not the only dupes: Diego Rivera’s vast collection of pre-Columbian art was ‘riddled with fakes’.
Given such a rich hoard of stories of artefact fraud, it is tempting to blur categories and to define a relic as vaguely as possible: as, perhaps, ‘something which remains or is left behind, particularly after destruction or decay’. This is clearly analytically unsatisfactory, reducing both the precision and the cumulativity of any comparative studies. An exacting, functionalist definition of relics—as uniquely religious inventions, specifically body parts, intimate personal possessions and contact materials that are thought to provide supernatural means to pragmatic ends—is the easiest defended. There are, admittedly, frequent linguistic attempts to sacralize secular artefacts: deeming national heroes ‘martyrs’, their bones ‘relics’, their graves ‘altars to the patria’, their memories the objects of ‘cults’. A handful of the most successful —the bones of Emiliano Zapata, or the would-be bones of Cuauhtémoc, or the Aztec crystal skulls— seem to attain for some followers the sacral function of religious relics, becoming objects that wield magical as well as mnemonic power. The overwhelming majority do not. Yet if non-religious artefacts are generally not believed to possess the numinous power of religious relics, they do share other key characteristics. What we might call ‘secular relics’ satisfy David Hume’s actor-centred description of the miraculous, namely materials which generate ‘the passion of surprise and wonder … an agreeable notion [that] gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events from which it is derived’. Relics religious and secular all work at the intersection of credulity and power; both types are examples of what Pierre Nora described as a material lieu de mémoire, namely ‘any significant entity … which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community’. Such symbolic capital is readily converted, as Pierre Bourdieu has argued, into economic or political capital. The relationship is old enough to be recognized in some etymologies; thus the root of the word for relic in Serbian—mošti—is moć, or power. In widening our focus beyond the purely religious we lose some precision; but in exchange we may gain some analytical insight, for relics religious and secular are surrounded by many similar social relationships and practices. Hence, in this essay, relics will be broadly defined as artefacts of widely accepted charismatic power, whether they serve as the sign for a famous individual or as the sign for a major, transformative idea.
There are assorted approaches that might be used here: the history of magic, religion, or memory, the anthropology of ritual and material culture, the sociology of community, instrumentalist theories of nationalism. The latter, perhaps an obvious choice for the analysis of secular relics at least, suffers however from a double weakness. Constructivist readings of hero/relic cults tend to assume a top-down flow of production, in which these signifiers of identity are invented by narrow coteries of metropolitan elites and artlessly consumed by their gullible subjects. Instrumentalist readings of symbolic manipulation further tend to assume that the mere existence of a statue, a reliquary, a grave, a postage stamp, or any other place of memory constitutes in itself conclusive proof that the represented symbol is central to both producers and consumers of that memory. I am unconvinced that either of these assumptions works everywhere, all the time. Some straightforward quantification of the resources invested —by both producers and consumers of symbols— would be a useful rule-of-thumb gauge of those symbols’ significance in the everyday scheme of things. It is worth remembering, moreover, that Pierre Nora’s ‘entirely symbolic’ history, or ‘history of the second degree’, was originally deeply reliant on an older, more positivist historiography which he and his followers effectively cannibalized. Without such older historiographical traditions to relate to, it becomes impossible to ‘point up the links between the material base of social existence and the most elaborate productions of culture and thought’. How does an ‘entirely symbolic’ historiography know what that material base looks like? How could we assess the ‘reuse and misuse’ of historical narrative in the utter absence of a professional historical narrative? Cultural analyses which overly despise the material can produce partial, and eventually sterilely interchangeable, understandings of the past—understandings of the sort which Nora, at base an empiricist whose meisterwerk filled seven volumes, might despise. Hence, in this survey, the use of culture and political economy as twin organizing concepts in attempting a relic-centred brand of the history of memory. An understanding of a relic’s cultural context is essential to understand the sources of its power; but a grasp of a relic’s political economy is also essential to understand why and how people fetishize, materialize, and trade these symbols across the world.