Hearst Museum Highlights What's Real and What Isn't in the World of African Art
by Gretchen Kell
Using shoe polish, termites, modern tools, and other bogus methods, people are becoming increasingly skilled at crafting fake African art, and unwary buyers--from tourists to educated collectors--are throwing their money away on it.
Frank Norick, a curator at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, said African art fakery is a growing trend that prompted him to set up the "Faux African Art" exhibit now at the Hearst. It runs through Jan. 8.
"The fakers of African art are mastering the finer points of reproducing masks, sculpture, and other objects," said Norick. "Sometimes they are so skillful that they can easily deceive even educated experts, costing them thousands of dollars."
Much of the phony art in the exhibit was donated by Irwin Hersey, a New York City collector.
The Hearst Museum itself has a large collection of ethnographic and archaeological fakes, reproductions, copies, and forgeries, said Norick. Some of the fraudulent objects were collected or donated before they were unmasked. Others were deliberately sought and acquired as phonies.
When it comes to African art, said Norick, a piece of "genuine" or "traditional" African art is defined as an object made by a traditional artist and then used in a traditional activity. For example, a mask created by a traditional carver and worn during a ceremonial dance is genuine.
But a piece created by a traditional carver that never "danced" is considered tourist art, said Norick.
"Sometimes people take masks and throw chicken feed on them so that the chickens will peck holes in them. African termites can reduce a mask to something that looks 100 years old. So things aren't always what they appear to be," he said.
In one display case at the exhibit, two African headdresses from the Bambara peoples of Mali sit side by side. Each is in the shape of an antelope and looks worn with age. But the larger carving is a fake.
"Although the carving is excellent in every respect," said Norick, "it is excessively large and could never have been attached to a basketry cap that ceremonial Chi Wara dancers wear. The large size, however, appeals to collectors in the US."
Norick said the increase in African art fakery stems from the growing number of African societies that are abandoning cultural traditions.
As production diminishes and the more important pieces wind up in the hands of collectors and museums, the inventory of African art is significantly reduced, said Norick. Yet the demand for authentic pieces remains high, creating a favorable climate for the faker.
While knowing African art traditions can lessen the chance of being taken, Norick said, "a fake may be so good it can fool the experts and go unrecognized as a fraud for years."