Unearthing the Truth opens on Friday, February 13th. Now that this rather unusual exhibition is ready to go, I am glad to have this opportunity to talk about it a little. Most of the Late Antique Egyptian stone sculptures in the Brooklyn Museum were acquired between the late 1950’s and the early 1970’s. We now know that, along with the genuinely ancient pieces that came on the art market and were acquired by the Museum during these years, there were also several forgeries. A few of these are ancient carvings that were apparently badly damaged when they were discovered in modern times, and were recarved to make them more salable. On about eight other examples in the Museum’s collection, however, the carving appears to be entirely modern.
The ancient examples in this group of sculptures were made during the Late Antique Period in Egypt. I use the term “Late Antique” to describe the centuries that came between the gradual end of the ancient culture of Pharaonic Egypt and the Arab conquest of Egypt, because so many artistic remains of that time include pagan motifs, which were clearly intended for believers in the religions of the Greeks and Romans. These people had come to Egypt as officials and soldiers under the Greek-speaking dynasty of the Ptolemies and the Roman emperors who succeeded them. The Late Antique Period is often called the Coptic Period, after the prevalent form of Christianity in Egypt in ancient times, as it still is today. This religion did come very early to Egypt; for several centuries, however, it was limited primarily to Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, and to monasteries located in the desert or the countryside, together with the nearby villages from which the monks drew supplies and new recruits. Only gradually did Coptic Christianity become established in the cities, for whose wealthy citizens the Christian funerary carvings were made.
Large numbers of sculptures from these cemeteries began to appear on the antiquities market soon after World War II. They were published in books by the leading authorities of that day and were eagerly acquired by museum curators in the United States and Europe. Only later did some experts began to realize that many of these pieces had been recarved or repainted to various degrees, and that others were entirely modern. Although it was lack of space, rather than doubts about their antiquity, that caused the pieces which had been on exhibition in the Brooklyn Museum to be removed from view, specialists soon began to share with the Museum their doubts about some of them. By the time I came here as a curator, all the Late Antique stone carvings, ancient and modern, were in the storeroom, more or less permanently out of sight.
I wanted very much to put the best of the ancient examples back on exhibition, so I began a review of their authenticity. This included reviewing earlier opinions, consulting with the leading American authorities on Late Antique Egyptian sculpture, and examining and discussing the evidence for modern alterations with the Museum’s Objects Conservators. It became clear to me that few of our pieces had escaped some degree of modern intervention. Very often, the surfaces had been scraped to remove superficial damages, and also any remaining traces of ancient paint. In a few cases, parts of an ancient piece had been recarved and repainted. The most obvious example is the red-robed figure of a boy, whose head was entirely recarved and repainted; his hands and feet were also repainted, but his garment still has its original paint.
On eight of the Museum’s pieces, the carving appears to be entirely modern. These examples range in quality from small reliefs carved in an extremely clumsy manner, to large figures that are as impressive, in their slightly more modern manner, as any of the antiquities. Some of the forgeries appears to have been carved in pieces of stone that had been salvaged from destroyed antiquities. Others are fashioned in a very porous stone that would not have been used in ancient times; it has been suggested that these forgers thought the small natural holes would resemble ancient damage! Half of our eight forgeries show Christian scenes or figures holding crosses, probably because their makers knew that these subjects would be especially welcome in the Western markets for which they were destined.
I am very pleased that the Brooklyn Museum has encouraged me to exhibit the whole story of our Late Antique Egyptian sculptures, whether good, bad, or retouched. I hope that our disclosure will inspire other museums to bring out their examples, both good and bad, so that the interesting story of “Late Antique” Egyptian sculpture in the Twentieth Century can finally be told.