The Ecosystem of Forgery

“The forgery culture is stratified and multi-facetted. It has a kinship system, a hierarchical structure, systems of gift exchange, laws, a coded language, judges and juries (usually the same), a police force. Its inhabitants include professors, curators, scientists, museum officials and trustees, dealers, smugglers, auction house employees, collectors, and forgers. An imperial culture, it colonizes other, more legitimate, cultures, drawing into its realm scholars, students, and the general public. It controls an extensive physical geography but possesses no moral geography. An appreciation of the spirit of its deeds suggests that many who participate in the culture’s activities function as a fifth column in the archaeological domain. Individuals function in this capacity willingly or as fellow travelers (because of the prestige, power, and financial support granted), some out of a fear (i.e. of losing one’s job or someone’s affection and support); others are more innocent or ignorant, not realizing they perform important tasks that help the culture to thrive.”
Oscar Muscarella (2000)[1, p.1]

This article contains some notes of mine on Oscar Muscarella’s The Lie Became Great (2000). It’s a book about Ancient Near Eastern forgeries that has a polemic introduction against what he calls “the forgery culture”. His book focuses on this culture in the art world (art museums and their staff, private collectors, students, scholars, etc…) but it would be interesting to hear or read about the presence of this culture in the field of literary history, which is a field I’m more interested and involved in. I’d imagine this discussion would focus more on libraries than art museums, but professors, students, scholars, and collectors would still play similar if not in some places identical roles.

The basis of The Lie Became Great was Oscar’s 1977 “Unexcavated Objects and Ancient Near Eastern Art”.[4, p.10]


The following stories only begin to scratch the surface of the forgery culture.

Starting on page 2 and ending on page 6, Oscar gave 25 anecdotes to give an introduction to the forgery culture. Here are my summaries of the anecdotes:

Page 2

1 – The first story he gave was about how the admins of a museum made an attempt to prevent the publication of an article that argued an object, not even in their possession, was a forgery. It belonged to someone who donated money and items to their museum. Naturally, they didn’t want to upset this donor and so made their attempt to suppress the press for this reason.

2 – Next, Oscar mentioned that he was aware of numerous museums that accepted donated forgeries knowing that they were forgeries. The knowledge of these items being forgeries is sometimes kept quiet from scholars and the public. The forgeries provide tax deductions and pose as financial duplicates of the real items, thereby exploiting the tax system.

3 – The next story was about the less common situation where the museum director keeps forgeries on display to assert power. This can also be done as an attempt to flex their unquestionable authority.

Page 3

4 – The fourth story was about the role loyalty plays in the forgery culture. A curator’s loyalty to their hirers, their institutions, or the object’s owner is one reason forgeries are kept on display. They might lose funding if any of these relations are damaged. Hence forgeries remain on display, unknown to be such to the public.

5 – Fifth was about how some collections would be so severely impacted by the removal of their forgeries that their departments and jobs would have to be eliminated. Since removing the forgeries from some collections would lessen their volume by over half in some cases.

6 – Sixth is that private notes are sometimes kept on known forgeries. One or all of the following are common:
a – no examinations allowed
b – the correct age is not to be announced
c – no mention of it being a forgery is allowed

This type of safeguard allows the forgery to survive, at least for those not in on the secret.

7 – Sometimes curators flex their power by refusing non-destructive testing of objects suspected of being forgeries. In this scenario, otherwise harmless scientific test are denied out of fear. There are various reasons for doing this, such as the protection of their reputation or that of someone they know.

8 – A number of collectors, curators, and dealers have all misrepresented laboratory test results to mask their items with false authenticity.

9 – An inscription was called into question and a scholar who otherwise would have spoken about it declined commenting so as to not upset the owner and other scholars who had already commented on it. This peer pressure results in the stunting of the growth of new scholarship, and allows forgeries to go unquestioned.

10 – Some scholars are discouraged from commenting on an object’s authenticity so as to not provoke negative reactions from employers and teachers. “They fear that its owner, exhibitor, publisher, or fellow-travelling scholars will seek revenge – deny jobs, internships, grants, recommendations, or affection, to themselves or their students.”[1, pp.3-4]

Page 4

11 – In one case, a professor threatened to fail a Ph.D student if the student didn’t remove from their dissertation comments about a collection harboring forgeries. You can be happy to know that this student did not have to compromise their interest and still received their Ph.D, albeit from a different school.

12 – In a different case, a student’s fellowship application was threatened by that student’s interest in forgeries. The student was told to abandon their interest but in the end the fellowship was approved and the interest was not abandoned.

13 – There was a time when a professor told their students not to ask a different professor about forgeries. If they didn’t follow the order, they could risk “…expulsion, a poor recommendation, or scorn.”[1, p.4]

14 – Another professor claimed that measures would be taken to prevent employment of any of his students who published about a known forgery that was not public knowledge.

15 – A lesser experienced scholar abstained from publishing about a suspected forgery so as to not upset a big name in their field. Again, this fear slows the progress of scholarship.

16 – A scholar rejected an invitation to write about an exhibition because the curator requested no questions about authenticity were to be raised. A less-knowledgeable scholar was eventually hired and no questions were raised.

Page 5

17 – A staff member at a museum was conducting a study on forgeries. The administration of his department attempted to intercept the work for review before publication but the effort was fruitless.

18 – Oscar’s 18th anecdote combined a number of stories. One was about a scholar who offered services to forge letters of authenticity for all types of items, real or fake. Another was a mention of dealers seeking out alleged experts, pseudo-experts for lack of a better term, for authenticating items and raising their perceived value. Lastly, he mentioned that there are people who lie about who exactly authenticated an item. Oscar mentioned hearing his own name inappropriately thrown out numerous times.

19 – Even laboratories will sometimes produce pseudo-scientific authentication reports.

20 – Scholars have defended the purchasing of forgeries as a necessary risk. This protects their creation and distribution.

Page 6

21 – Sometimes scholars unwittingly publish about forgeries. This helps perpetuate the culture by creating more content based on undetected illusion.

22 – Museum purchases can be intriguing and different people can have differing opinions about what happened during any particular case. This confusion allows for the culture to prosper.

23 – Oscar told a story about a museum director who did nothing to prevent his colleague from claiming at a symposium that well known item was a forgery. The director knew it was authentic and allowed the claim to be made so that it could be used to discredit his colleague in the future. In this case, the forgery has been weaponized by one person to hurt the future reputation of someone else. This is not helpful for scholarship, but it does remind me of that Napoleon Bonaparte quote,

“In that case,” said Napoleon, “let us wait twenty minutes; when the enemy is making a false movement we must take good care not to interrupt him.”[2]

Basically saying, don’t interrupt your enemy when they’re making a mistake.

24 – The 24th story was the opposite of the previous one. A forgery was claimed to be authentic during a seminar and when this mistake was pointed out, the seminar’s professor said it didn’t matter because it was representative enough. In this way, the presence of the forgery was excused because it was close enough to the real deal that the presenters believed it could be used as an example.

25 – Lastly, an archeological club made up of university professors all agreed that buying forgeries was better than buying items that had been plundered, and also that they shouldn’t inform collectors and museums when they are considering purchasing or have purchased forgeries. This group effort strengthens the forgery culture and harms scholarship.


Apparently even Thomas Hoving is known to have forged at least one provenance. He did this in collusion with Hecht for the Euphronios krater, a beautiful Greek vase dating to c.515 BCE.[4, p.8]

To highlight the impact forgery culture can have, I’ll mention Oscar’s 1977 publication, “Ziwiye” and Ziwiye: The Forgery of a Provenience. In this article, he details the “Ziwiye Problem”.[5]

“Forgers are cognizant of museum practices and tailer their forgeries accordingly.”
Laurie Adams (2018)[4, p.34]


The Museum Ritual

“The Ritual is evoked for the sake of: the reputations of the curator, director, trustees, donor, colleagues, and for the sake of keeping from the public that it is paying the bills through tax deductible money – the latter being one of the best kept museum secrets.”
Oscar Muscarella (2000)[1, p.7]

Oscar began to briefly outline this ritual on pages 6 and 7, and provided a substantial footnote on pages 22 and 23. The Museum Ritual involves not feigning any sign of weakness in a collection.

He cited de Pradenne 1932 as a suitable example (the case of the tiara of Saitapharnes) of the Ritual but I didn’t see this listed in his bibliography. Regardless of that, I located the work being mentioned. It’s André Vayson de Pradenne’s Les Fraudes en archéologie préhistorique (Frauds in prehistoric archeology) (1932). This work is available to read for free online.[3] Oscar called this “still one of the best discussions of forgery and the forgery culture”.[1 p.9]

In the same footnote, Oscar provided some responses he’s gotten when telling museum staff that they purchased a forgery. They spanned from defending the forgery because it looks or seems real enough, to saying some people believe it’s genuine, to exaggerating the assertion, to ridiculing him. Quite the smorgasbord. I figure Oscar included this portion because it’s part of the ritual to normalize keeping quiet about or defending forgeries. This part reminded me of the somewhat opposite story related by Wolfgang Felton in chapter 9 (Falscherkunst/Forgery) where a French expert declared something to be fake for an unspecified feeling. I don’t think going with gut feeling is the best methodology, but it does seem to be somewhat common in both arguments for and against authenticity.

Another citation was John L Hess’ The Grand Acquisitors (1974). This book’s circulation was allegedly suppressed, assumedly because it discussed the role of museums in purchasing stolen, plundered, and forged art.

“Many curators of alleged ancient art are less educated than scholars and know and care little about scholarship, let alone archaeology.”
Oscar Muscarella (2000)[1, p.7]

Issue or Non-Issue?

Starting on page 7, Oscar goes into a great discussion about the debate on whether forgeries are an issue or not.

For discussion on the necessity of possessing forgeries, he cited: Pierre Amiet, Art et Histoire de I’Iran avant I’Islam (Louvre, 1978). Reportedly, in it, Amiet attacks the critics who claim that all “antiquities” acquired through the market are forgeries. Oscar points out that Amiet didn’t mention any by name, and that these alleged critics were non-existent.

The “bite-the-bullet, heroic role”[1, p.7] of purchasing forgeries for the greater good was presented by Arthur Upham Pope in 1939. The two works by Pope cited here are:

(1939) The General Problem of Falsifications, in III Congres International, Leningrad: 177-194

(1968) On the Discovery of Falsifications and the Recognition of Authenticity, in SPA XIII: A/1-A/10

Roman Girshman was mentioned as an associate of Amiet. His l’Art animalier aulique Achemenide (1976) was cited for recommended reading on the bite-the-bullet argument.

Oscar asserted that Pope’s publications were made to justify selling and purchasing forged antiquities, of which Pope was a dealer. As well as to pose as quick-guides on how to avoid being fooled. Ghirshman’s publication was made as a sale’s catalogue which denied the fact that forgeries exist at all.

Page 8

At the end of page 8, he begins discussion about those people who claim forgeries are not an issue. He gives names and publications to support his assertions.

Page 9

Oscar presented the results of reports estimating how many forgeries are in existence. He mentioned Hall (1990), which reported 600 objects each year are determined to be forgeries at Oxford University; Low (1993) estimated half of the “Marlik-like vessels on the market are forgeries”[1, p.9]; a powerhouse among the world’s largest brokers of fine and decorative art, jewelry, and collectibles, Sotheby reports about half of the objects brought to them are forgeries; and he tops it off with Norick (1993), which reported that about 25,000 pre-Columbian art forgeries enter the market annually.

Even Oscar’s enemy, Thomas Hoving apparently wasn’t shy about the number of fakes and questionable works. In 1996, Thomas reported that out of some 50,000 works he had examined over the course of 15 years, 40% or more of them were forgeries or at the least questionable. As for the literary field, and traveling back in time a bit, Anthony Grafton reported that an estimated 66% of all documents given to the clergy prior to 1100 were fakes.[7, p.24]



[1] – Muscarella, Oscar White. The Lie Became Great (Studies in the Art and Archaeology of Antiquity). Brill, 2000. Accessed 27 May 2021.

[2] – Investigator, Quote. “Never Interfere With an Enemy While He’s in the Process of Destroying Himself” (6 Jul. 2010). Accessed 28 May 2021.

[3] – Pradenne, André Vayson. Les Fraudes En Archéologie Préhistorique. Nourry, 1932. Accessed 29 May 2021.

[4] – Simpson, Elizabeth. The Adventure of the Illustrious Scholar (Culture and History of the Ancient Near East). Lam, BRILL, 2018. Accessed 29 May 2021.

[5] – Muscarella, O. W. (1977). “Ziwiye” and Ziwiye: The Forgery of a Provenience. Journal of Field Archaeology, 4(2), 197–219. doi:10.1179/jfa.1977.4.2.197. Accessed 30 May 2021.

[6] – Hoving, Thomas. False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes. 1st ed., Simon & Schuster, 1996. Accessed 21 Jun. 2021.

[7] – Grafton, Anthony, and Ann Blair. Forgers and Critics, New Edition: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship. New, Princeton University Press, 2019. Accessed 21 Jun. 2021.

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