The “value” of authenticity in the antiquities market

Involving countless stakeholders from across the globe, the modern trade of antiquities is an international concern and is estimated to be worth billions of dollars. At the heart of this market are the objects that offer the contemporary world a tangible connection with their past, often inciting criminal activity in a desire to possess – or profit from – them. Antiquities and their perceived value drive the supply and demand relations of the modern antiquities market, therefore examining what factors create this “value” is crucial to the understanding of this trade.

It is, of course, implied by posting this reflection on a blog titled “Markers of Authenticity” that there is a relationship between value and authenticity in the antiquities market. However, the nature and extent of this relationship is worthy of examination, especially considering how perceptions of authenticity are undeniably the most powerful influence on perceptions of value. In the words of Dr. Donna Yates – Lecturer in Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime – authenticity, or lack thereof, is the “dealbreaker” when trading any antiquities, especially those associated with the ancient world (Yates, 2015).

Fakes and forgeries circulate in the antiquities market, especially prolific amongst the trade of Asian artefacts. And unlike obvious fake iPhones or Louis Vuitton clutches, forged artefacts are often of such impressive quality and construction that they are capable of fooling experts. Famous forgeries earn their status through association with scholars, dealers and institutions who asserted their legitimacy, often to the detriment of their own reputations.

The ubiquity of these false antiquities casts serious doubts over the legitimacy of the antiquities market, and this doubt is now being utilised by law enforcement agencies seeking to intervene with illicit trafficking of antiquities. This policing strategy is one I wish to examine deeper in another post; however, it is worth mentioning briefly now in relation to the value of authenticity.

A handful of art-theft agencies or equivalents, including the French and Mexican authorities, have utilised this tactic that involves publicly announcing an investigation into the authenticity of objects placed at an upcoming public auction. In all cases so far, these allegations have managed to significantly lower the expected yield of the auctions, confirming the importance of the relationship between authenticity and value and illustrating how doubt can be used to shape the market.

In response to these doubts and concerns, there is a rhetoric of authenticity visible throughout the entire antiquities market, from the most established antiquarian institutions to the humblest eBay numismatics dealer. This rhetoric varies in sophistication, often associated with the perceived value of the artefact at hand: the more costly the artefact has the potential of being, the more money and time is invested in asserting the authenticity to positively influence the value of an artefact. For the most part, these authenticating strategies range from simple linguistic assertions of authenticity – e.g. “authentic” or “genuine” – to appeals to legitimacy involving the testimonials of “experts”: usually antiquarians, museum curators, scholars and scientists.

Assurance of authenticity is also somewhat attained by the inclusion of provenance, as it theoretically provides a chain of connoisseurship, implying that the more “experts” that handle an artefact, the greater chance a fake would be identified. Provenance and its relationship with authenticity, however, is an issue worthy of its own post due to the complex issues associated there. Briefly, provenance can be, and is often, forged, thus doing little to contribute to a sense of legitimacy and authenticity.

Finally, although less common in the “grey market” (Brodie, 2012), but still worthy of mentioning, is the practice of photographing artefacts in situ or in transit to confirm their authenticity (and criminal activity!). The use of “authenticity photos” can easily be demonstrated by high profile illicit antiquities cases, such as the archives of photos compiled by Italian art dealers Becchina and Medici which were used to prove their illegal activity in a court of law. But these are not isolated incidents and, despite the obvious risk involved, authenticity photos are often utilised to assert legitimacy and enhance the financial value of antiquities. This practice in particular reveals the dissonance that lies at the core of antiquities dealer practices– the risk to prove authenticity is worthwhile due to its exponential influence on the value of antiquities. Without authenticity, the artefact is without “value”.

Authenticity, however, is not the only factor that determines the perceived value of an object presented on the antiquities market and it is worthwhile considering these other factors, which are ultimately superseded by any doubts of authenticity. The antiquities market is also driven by concerns of beauty and function and – to a much lesser extent – legality.

Beauty is an obvious factor, considering the majority of artefacts are purchased with the intention of display and other visual purposes. Closely related is the potential sex appeal of an artefact, with a focus on anything “salacious and titillating” (Yates, 2015) and anything with emotional appeal, especially items of religious significance. Value is also attained through an object’s pop appeal, related to the fame of a collector or associated museum, or through association with any significant archaeological discoveries. Rarity is also an obvious factor in determining the value of an antiquity and to a lesser extent, so is its potential legality, depending on the motivations of the individual collectors. All of these qualities, however, are null and void without being able to accurately authenticate an antiquity. As previously stated, authenticity is the “dealbreaker” in the antiquities market.

But why so much emphasis on authenticity? Most collectors are motivated by a desire to possess a tangible connection to the past and this connection cannot be achieved if the object symbolising it is false. Modern interference, including restoration and forgery, substantially devalues and undermines the authenticity of ancient artefacts because they are perceived to be “less” ancient. In other words, authenticity is what legitimises this highly sought after connection more than an object’s beauty, emotional appeal or rarity.

This fixation on authenticity can sometimes be damaging to the resolution of the numerous ethical, legal and moral issues associated with the antiquities trade. For instance, there is an emerging trend to replace museum displays –especially those with contentious ownership – with replica artefacts, facilitated by new technologies such as of 3D-printing. Theoretically, these replicas could offer a solution to the ongoing debate over the ownership of cultural property, ultimately allowing those in the Universalism camp to fulfill their desire to make antiquities available to all people equally. However, in practice these replicas are deemed unworthy and are unable to attract the popularity, esteem and financial support that “real” antiquities do, and thus the pressure remains on museums and other institutions to acquire the most authentic and highest quality artefacts they are capable of sourcing.

 

The relationship between “value” and authenticity in the antiquities market is just one part of a multi-faceted and nebulous discussion that will be hosted on the Markers of Authenticity blog. Please join in on the discussion either by attending one of our upcoming seminars, or by starting a dialogue via this blog or my personal email: lauren.dundler@gmail.com.

– Lauren Dundler

 

References:

Brodie, N. (2012), ‘Uncovering the antiquities market’, in R. Skeates, C. McDavid and J Carman (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 230 – 252.

Brodie, N. (2014), ‘The antiquities market: it’s all in a price’, Heritage and Society 7(1): 32 – 46.

Yates, D. (2015), ‘Value and doubt’: the persuasive power of “authenticity” in the antiquities market’. PARSE 2: 71 – 84.

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