In Praise of Fakes

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  • Reviews and Commentaries120 Scientific American November 1997

    Several years ago I became curi-ous about a 17th-century Per-sian astrolabe maker called Abdal Aimma the Younger. My trail of re-search eventually led to the Boston Mu-seum of Fine Arts, which had a brassinstrument supposedly inscribed byhim. The metalworking and calligraphywere fine enough, but it quickly becameapparent to me that the astrolabe nevercould have functioned as an astronomi-cal instrument. In a word, it was a fake.

    The curators response took me bysurprise: This will make a good displayfor us. The museum is planning an ex-hibition on forgeries. We have two as-trolabes that look very much the sameto the untutored eye, but one is genuine,the other fake. The comparison will helpteach what is essential on an astrolabeand what is ornamental nonsense.

    Unfortunately, the exhibition nevercame to be. The Boston trustees vetoedthe idea because they didnt want to ad-mit how often the museum had beencaught out collecting forgeries. Yet lat-er, in 1990, the British Museum stageda stunningly successful show of fakesranging from a medieval chastity belt tothe infamous jaw of Piltdown Man.These artifacts, testimonials to deceitand gullibility, all raise the sensitivity ofour perceptions. They teach us to seemore critically as we (and fallible ex-perts) gain greater insight into the oftenblurred line between the authentic andthe counterfeit.

    Yales Vinland map, the Gettys bronzehorse, Rembrandts Man in a GoldenHelmetall of these challenged objectshave attracted greater scrutiny andstudy than they ever would have had ascomplacently accepted antiques.

    Recently my wife, Miriam, and I hadour vision sharpened in an unanticipat-ed arena. Ever since we had a gloriousopportunity to sail in Melanesia duringthe 1986 appearance of Halleys comet,

    we have been intrigued by the astonish-ing variety and beauty of seashells.Over the years we have amassed a siz-able collection of cowries, cones andconches. The invention of scuba divingand the knowledge by fisherman thatshells are eminently collectiblesub-stantially democratized some once clas-sic rarities. An example is the elegantListers conch, which fetched $1,000 atauction in 1970 but today is availablefor a few dollars. And the matchlesscone Conus cedonulli, which broughtsix times the price of a Vermeer paint-ing at a 1796 auction, can now be pur-chased for about $100. Still, many spec-tacular gastropods outstrip our modestbudget.

    We were therefore quite surprised to

    discover in a small shop several exquis-ite shells at bargain prices. Puzzled, I in-quired about them. We got them inex-pensively from the fisherman, so theyare good buys, the dealer explained.

    Blissfully forgetting the adage thatwhere money is to be made, forgeriesabound, I succumbed to temptation,buying two beautiful cowriesa valen-tia and a smaller sakurai, the latter ashell at the top of the rarity scale. When

    I got back to my reference books, Ifound that the sakurai cowrie was atwin of the one illustrated in The Shellsof the Philippines. That should havetriggered an alarm, but it didnt.

    Icould not help gloating over our ac-quisitions, so I mentioned them via e-mail to Guido Poppe, one of the lead-ing collector-dealers in Europe. Poppepromptly congratulated us on our bonnechance, then dropped his bombshell: Ihope you didnt buy painted specimens.

    Shaken, we consulted A Guide toWorldwide Cowries to see if there wereany similar but cheaper species thatcould be repainted into a rarity. Thiswas an educational experience in itself,taking a close look at the shapes rather

    than the color patterns of the cowries:the bottom line was that both specieshad unique shapes.

    Placing the specimens under magnifi-cation10 to 30 powerrevealed awealth of detail, but it still left their sta-tus ambiguous. The single-colored sa-kurai pattern looked suspiciously likedelicate penmanship. To get an expertopinion, I sent the shell to Gary Rosen-berg of the Academy of Natural Scien-


    WONDERSby Owen Gingerich

    In Praise of Fakes

    If its a fake, Miriam declared, its worth the

    price as a piece of fine art.






    Copyright 1997 Scientific American, Inc.

  • ces in Philadelphia. Although the acad-emys shell collection contains 12 mil-lion specimens, the sakurai is so rarethat it is not represented in their hold-ings. Nevertheless, Dr. Rosenberg couldgive a definitive verdict.

    When I opened the box, he report-ed, I thought, What a gorgeous shell!But under the microscope, I saw that allthe color lay sharply in the same plane.On a genuine pattern, the animal de-posits the pigments all through the out-er layer, producing a somewhat fuzzyappearance. Furthermore, the surface ofyour shell is too uniform, so a reflectedlight stays steady as the shell is rotated.On an unretouched shell, the growthlamellae give a jerky effect. Your shell isa genuine sakurai, but its splendid pat-tern is a forgery.

    The fraudulent sakurai cast doubt onthe larger valentia. The valentias pat-tern, however, was far more complex,with multiple layers and a palette ofsubtle colors. If its a fake, Miriamdeclared, its worth the price as a pieceof fine art. An art historian made thenext suggestion: Take it to the physical

    conservation laboratory at the Fogg ArtMuseum. They can use infrared to seeif anything has been repainted.

    The conservators chuckled at that ad-vice. Infrared is useful in some situa-tions to detect overpainting on canvasesbut not appropriate here. In any case,the museums experts gave the valentiaa hard look under their microscope:There are no signs of brushstrokes oredge bleeding that we would expectwith painting on porcelain, for exam-ple. If this is a fake, its a much betterjob than we can do in the lab. Still,they agreed that one minor blemish onthe surface looked like a fingerprint inlacquer. Determined to get a definitiveanswer, I gave permission to dissolvethe finish in some inconspicuous spot.

    When I returned the next day, theywere wreathed in smiles. Weve triedevery solvent in the cabinet, they said.Nothing touches it. Your shell has anatural surface, and that fingerprinthas got to be a natural defect.

    As a final clincher, they suggestedputting the shell under ultraviolet light.I knew the result already. Most shells,

    including the valentia and 180 otherspecies of cowries that I have tested,have no ultraviolet features. The twoexceptions are the venusta cowrie fromsouthwest Australia and the relativelycommon mappa, found throughout al-most the entire Indo-Pacific. Both spe-cies fluoresce with a magnificent orange.My discovery is well known to mala-cologists, although Im not sure theyknow why these species glow that way.

    In terms of sharpened perspectives,the money for the enhanced specimenwas well spent. The happy ending ofmy story is that the dealer who sold theshells was as surprised as I when oneturned out to be fraudulent, and she im-mediately exchanged the sakurai for areal one (which was not so easy, consid-ering its rarity). And then she sold methe fake at a reduced price.

    OWEN GINGERICH, professor ofastronomy and history of science at theHarvard-Smithsonian Center for Astro-physics, has a collecting gene thatgives him a passionate interest in rarebooks and elegant shells.


    Copyright 1997 Scientific American, Inc.