DEDUCING ATTITUDES FROM ARTIFACTS
By Robert K. Liu, article from Ornament 24 (4): 2001
Deducing Attitudes from Artifacts – Imitations, Fakes, Misrepresentations, Cultural Substitutes, Replicas and Artist Interpretations
Drawing on their ancient, ethnographic or contemporary origins, beads and similar artifacts reappear in every possible physical form, as imitations, fakes, misrepresentations, cultural substitutes, replicas, as well as artist-made interpretations. Imitations and fakes are the bane of collectors. Misrepresentations are the most common fraud. Cultural substitutes help broaden access to rare materials. Replicas relieve pressure on the continuing desire for the acquisition of antiquities. And through contemporary artist-made interpretations, the bead itself is reconstructed as a form of homage to the historical artifact. The line between imitation and fake is dependent upon both intent to deceive and the degree of knowledge of the observer. In a culture like China, it was an honored tradition to replicate or copy archaic or older designs; presumably, the educated elite would never mistake this practice as fraudulent.
Imitations, reproductions or copies are usually made in stone, faience and other ceramics, glass, metal and other materials, and from organic or synthetic origins. Where imitations of gem materials are involved, we also have concerns with enhancements and synthetics; these problems are normally not germane to the issues discussed here (Koivula et al 2000, McClure and Smith 2000). For certain ancient cultures, various substitutes (cultural substitutes) were also acceptable, such as stones other than jade that qualified as cultural jades in precolumbian Mesoamerica and dynastic China. In the last decade or so, the very important phenomenon of replicas was initiated to reduce collecting pressure on their ancient prototypes. These involve mainly ceramics and stone. Within this same time span, artist-made interpretations of beads from ancient and ethnographic sources have resulted in beads of great ingenuity, aesthetics and collectible value, mainly in glass and polymer. In addition, their efforts have also aided in the deciphering of ancient techniques (Giberson 1996).
Besides simulations, replicas, imitations and copies, there are other phenomena encountered with beads and other perforated ornaments, such as transpositions, degradations and outright fantasies (Liu 1985, 1987a; van Saldern 1972; Zeltner 1931). These complicate the detection of imitations if one is unaware of them, but do not hamper the actual differentiation process between the real and the copy. In those rare instances, when the sample is limited, such as an etched carnelian bead with human figures (Davis-Kimball and Liu 1981), the difficulty arises from having no comparisons, although within the last decade, several more examples of such etched carnelians have emerged.
When examining concrete objects like beads and pendants, we really are also observing the manifestation of attitudesóabout originality and appropriation of designs, or intellectual property (in the worst cases, stealing from an entire culture without acknowledgment), savings in cost and labor, acceptance of imitations or other forms of culturally acceptable substitutes, and the desire to take advantage of peopleís greed and ignorance. Artist-made interpretations are the exception; their intent is to learn from historic prototypes and often, to pay homage to their unknown masters. Replicas are also a positive alternative; they provide attractive substitutes for people who admire ancient artifacts, which often derive from looting, and enlist local employment for their production. Such replicas may become so good in the future that the unscrupulous will peddle them as the real article. The rapid increase in quality of indigenous and Western craftspeople when reproducing ancient prototypes demonstrates that certain skills can be quickly acquired, providing clues to how some past cultures adapted to new techniques and materials in a surprisingly short time.
Misrepresentations are the most common form of deception, even though they may be well made by people from other cultures and times than the artifact it is supposed to represent, or by passing off something contemporary as old. Often, misrepresentations have little or nothing to concur with their descriptions, as often happens on certain Internet auctions and websites.
Ignorance and greed are the best allies of fraud, so knowledge and a realistic expectation of prices are the best protections for the collector. If one is educated in the styles, materials and techniques used for making ornaments, an imitation may be merely amusing, but to the uninitiated, acquiring such a deception may be both an economic hardship and a blow to self-esteem. It is surprising and discouraging, given the current greater availability of information about all ornaments, that so many collectors, dealers and museum staff still know so little. Such ignorance was more understandable a few decades ago when printed information in the field of personal adornment was often lacking or difficult to access.
While it is very doubtful in antiquity that craftspeople or traders had ethical compunctions about copying the work of others in their own or other cultures, it is more than likely that similar attitudes prevailed during the period of economic warfare between developing and Western nations and during the numerous periods of territorial expansion we have witnessed in historic times. (It is likely that objects restricted to royalty or other rulers, as well as those subject to sumptuary laws would not be copied.) In fact, there is some evidence that shrewd agents traveled in search of popular beads or ornaments that could be copied or adapted to mass production by industrial nations, which were then restricted mainly to the Western countries (Codrington 1932). This is not too different than the role of bead traders in the last two and a half decades continuing today. But in a role reversal, representatives from Western firms, as well as indigenous businesses, now are utilizing the lower costs and specialized skills of Asians (Indians, Chinese and Indonesians) in working stone and glass to produce copies of ornaments of ancient and ethnographic origins, which are sold primarily to the West. In many areas of fashion, including jewelry, it is common practice for designers to appropriate the clothing and ornaments of other cultures, usually from less developed nations. This process of discovery entails taking the work of others as your own, usually then adapted to Western tastes. Plain copying is also rife in fashion and jewelry, often by imitating expensive, exclusive designs in cheaper versions.
Such practices may be smugly dismissed, but within the realm of crafts, there are marked similarities. Indeed, students often imitate the actions, thoughts and styles of their teachers. Much education is based on the “do as I do” practice. In fact, the long childhood of humans encourages children to copy the actions of their parents. As with all imitation,”. . .the imitator reaps the benefits of someone elseís learning or ingenuity. . .” (Blackmore 2000). With the current widespread practice of craftspeople paying for workshops, there is even less resistance to students adopting their instructors’ techniques and styles. This type of learning may be very similar to memes, in which behaviors (skills, techniques) and ideas were copied from person to person. Current thought considers this to be an important contribution to human evolution (Blackmore 2000). If artists want to maintain inspiration, innovation and creativity, they need to think deeply about such issues. Sometimes, the line between ingenuity and creativity is difficult to discern, especially with the fakes and imitations that abound. But the rampant violation of copyright, designs and appropriation of intellectual property is apparent and will come to haunt us. The art and ethics of our times will not compare well.
However, not all view such copying as negative: Preston (2000), in his review of the following book, states, “Hair in African Art and Culture comes at a time when appropriation of the iconography of the shunned and marginalized offers safer recognition then rebellion. All over the world, people are wearing the hairstyles, jewelry, and clothing of those they might otherwise disdain. Yet it is this flirtation with the superficiality of the Other that has disarmed intolerance more quickly than common sense or legislation.”Yet it is this very superficiality that may be masking real cultural differences. Does the worldwide adoption of such common American clothing as bluejeans, buttondown collars and tee shirts really mean our ideals and customs have universal acceptance?
Generally, the most common materials are copied, although exotic or rare items, which have or have had high market value regionally or among collectorsósuch as hornbill ivory and crane’s crest beads, Phoenician mask pendants, Roman mosaic face beads, Indonesian Jatim beads and dZi beadsóare also imitated or faked. While deception in the realm of beads or other perforated artifacts has accelerated in the last few decades, the practice of forgery in ethnography and antiquities is certainly not a recent phenomenon (Brent 2001, Lapatin 2001) and is harmful to our ability to interpret the past (Muscarella 2001). During a survey using over one hundred fifty rolls of 35mm film for gathering the visual data for this article, China, unidentified Asian nations and India accounted for respectively nineteen, sixteen and eleven percent of the imitations, with Europe and the United States taking up twenty-five and twelve percent. However, almost all of the latter were artist-made interpretations from the last two decades. In terms of materials or specific types of beads that were imitated, the most common were coral and dZi (twelve percent), carnelian/agate and other hardstones (eleven percent each). Other than an artificial category of other glass (nine percent), jade was the next most copied (five percent). Most likely amber, copal and possibly jet imitations will rank among the most common, but my sampling may be skewed since one tends to lose interest in items that are encountered too frequently.
The history of imitations has often involved industrial nations pitting their resources against less technologically advanced nations. In short, the imitation of beads reflects the history of technologies used in the constant search for cheaper substitutes. The competition among India, Germany (Idar Oberstein) and Czechoslovakia is a good example of such economic struggles (Liu 1987b). But the prime loser in this case, India, has revived in the bead market of the late twentieth century, ironically, with the technical help of the Czech Republic.
On the practical side, the tools and skills for detecting simulations are very portable and simple, thus easily applied. Eyesight and wits are what we use when looking at or collecting beads, all based on comparison and conjecture. Thus the appearance, weight and hardness (as tested by rubbing or tapping against the incisors to help determine if an example is stone, glass or plastic.) serve as the primary clues. While possibly not very sanitary, the vibration or feel of the material against the teeth can usually tell the tester to which of the three categories the bead belongs, as well as the relative hardness of its medium, comparable to how hard points are used in determining the Mohís scale of gems and minerals. Hands serve to feel the texture and heft of a bead. Almost always, the copy will not weigh the same as the original, usually less. Mentally comparing the weight of the specimen versus the original is greatly facilitated if one is familiar with the relative weights of glass and plastic. To counter this, imitations in plastic or other light materials often have lead inserts, to increase their weight. If one can detect glass and plastic, the materials used most often for substitutes, then the majority of imitations can be distinguished. Often, the opportunity to observe beads is spur of the moment, without the further chance to study them with instruments, except possibly a loupe, at leisure or with access to material for comparison. Even so, having a study collection is invaluable for learning and collecting with a purpose. As exposure to beads increases, knowledge builds, so that our database and skillbase enable us to become better visual analysts in detecting simulations and imitations of any type.
Central to this supposition is having a knowledge of the prototype, so that one can make comparisons between the real and the copy and know the materials and techniques used respectively for each. Historically, relatively few materials were used for imitating beads. Natural simulating natural includes stones or ivory imitating other stones, as well dyed walrus ivory for jadeite, dyed steatite for lapis, or howlite for turquoise. Of synthetic materials substituted for natural substances, faience, glass and plastic have been used the most for imitations, although other ceramics have also been utilized on a minor scale (Liu 1992, 1995; Ogden 1982).
Here, the term synthetic means human-made, not in the context used for gemstones, whereby the synthetic simulation has the same hardness and chemical composition as the prototype. Much rarer is the use of materials of organic origin employed to simulate stones, such as the Chinese practice of dyeing walrus tusk to imitate either jadeite or possibly malachite. In the industrial age, imitations in glass and plastic superceded all others. Perhaps eighty percent of extant copies fall within the last two centuries.
Thus imitations are neither numerous nor that difficult to detect, although the current practice of making stone replicas to ease collecting pressure on the prototypes may create a new problem. Some of these replicas are being produced under the direction of an archaeologist (Kenoyer 1996), others are at the request of a dealer for the purpose of re-introducing the beautiful shapes of ancient beads into the market (Kamol, pers. comm. 1998) while still others are probably made as forgeries of expensive ancient beads (Liu 1998). Now both India and the Peoplesí Republic of China are engaged in making replicas, mostly at the suggestion of dealers. Because of the speed of communication and travel, new replicas are introduced into the market very quickly and the quality increases with each new batch. Some of the stones for these replica beads are the same as their ancient prototypes, others may never have been so used. But just as glass replicas have been aged to simulate antiquity, similar procedures may be applied to stone replicas.
With hardstone replicas, artificial aging may not even be necessary, since many of the ancient prototypes are in excellent condition and show few apparent signs of wear. The ultimate detection of good replicas may depend upon examining silicon casts of the perforations or electron microscope photographs of the different surfaces left by modern production methods or the absence of wear, such as micro-percussion scars. Such studies have now been applied to Southeast Asian agate and carnelian beads; it has been possible to differentiate between those of local and Indian manufacture (Bellina and d’Errico 2000).
Imitating beads is possibly among the oldest professions of the world. The earliest known imitation dates from about forty thousand years, in the form of a steatite copy of a vestigial red deer canine (White 1993), with the next oldest examples about 5,000 B.C., as shown in a strand of tabular obsidian beads from Iraq at the Sackler gallery of the British Museum, where one imitation is made of unfired clay. Kenoyer (1994) has shown that faience was used for copying turquoise in Harappan civilizations, which occurred similarly in Badarian Egypt. Brunton (1928) has stated that these copies were so good that contemporary field archaeologists were frequently unable to differentiate between turquoise and its faience imitation. Such fidelity is a rarity, except with well-executed current dZi simulations and some glass copies, like Jatim beads, as most imitations lack this quality. This is puzzling, as those who wear and use beads are constantly exposed to them and are keen and astute observers. Why would they be fooled by some of the outlandish copies that are on the market?
Economics probably drive this acceptance of fakes. Accurately copying the original of any bead entails so many variables that it is nearly impossible to do so and still have an economically viable product (Liu 1980b), except where the prototype has high value, such as dZi beads. If one can employ a feasible substitute for a rare, expensive or difficult to work material, someone in the market will accept this copy whether or not it is true to the prototype. Fairly soon, the fact that it is a copy no longer matters; it becomes symbolic of the real one and gains acceptance.
There are obvious economic rewards to such acceptance, as seen in the battles waged between various beadmaking countries (Liu 1974, 1987b). The imitation may even be better than the prototype because synthetic materials are usually lighter and are produced in a more regular configuration, all of which facilitate the stringing of beads into necklaces. In fact, we might classify most of these accepted imitations or simulations as cultural substitutes in the broadest sense, similar to the various cultural jades in ancient China and precolumbian Americas. Possibly this also occurs among the Maoris of New Zealand, where other greenstones like bowenite were accepted as jade (Hibler 1998).
I used to feel that few collectors were really fooled by simulationsómostly new collectors, or those looking for bargains, who permitted a low cost to sway their judgmentóbut now many more may be unable to differentiate. Often, a fanciful tale will ensnare the all too eager and already gullible buyer. Ignorance of the prototype or inability to recognize materials and techniques are to blame. Ironically, to experienced bead collectors, clever copies are often more exciting and interesting than the real beads. Here aesthetics enters the realm of imitations.
Collectors and professionals, such as anthropologists and archaeologists, both face the problem that there is no easy way to distinguish real from imitation beads, no matter what the material, except by experience and trial and error. Because there are so many bead types and materials, with a sizeable portion still undescribed and new techniques being developed constantly, the learning curve for detection of simulations could be quite long. But with exposure and guidance from a mentor, it is surprising how quickly one can learn enough to begin identifying and differentiating adequately, especially if one were to vigorously read the bead literature. Thorough knowledge is the best protection.
Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament.
The photo on the right are authentic Kiffas from Mauritani Africa, The picture on the right are an Indonesian reproduction.
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