african masksFake Gabun
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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Fake Gabun !

Contrary to the temptation! An appeal for a new dialogue among museums and collectors, scholars, and dealers 

by Lorenz Homberger


by Lorenz Homberger Rietberg Museum found at African Arts

Relationships between museums and private collectors are determined by a complicated equilibrium. In the best cases they are characterized by a balanced give-and-take oriented to specific projects and through which critical perceptions, high ethical and scholarly objectives, as well as empathy for the concerns of each other are distinct on both sides and in a similar manner. In the worst cases, these principles are abandoned in favor of the misdirected ambitions of collectors and museums, presumably on the assumption that exhibiting objects from private collections without detailed examination of their authenticity and origin and without a clear contextualization is permissible, as long as visitors are presented with an exhibition of apparently unknown material, whose presentation and catalogue suggest that it equals or even surpasses the quality of objects whose authenticity has been determined beyond a doubt and verified by sustained scholarly revisions of the material.

The recent exhibition "Mit dem Auge des Astheten. Kunst aus Gabun" (With the Eye of an Aesthete: Art from Gabon) at the Volkerkundemuseum der Josefine und Eduard von Portheim-Stiftung in Heidelberg (November 6, 2005-January 22, 2006) constitutes a case study of such issues, exhibiting objects from unidentified private collectors. Museum visitors were presented with seventy-four objects, all but seven of which are illustrated in the accompanying publication--far more comprehensive than the exhibition--Gabon: Tribal Art (Walldorf: Schulte Weiss, 2005), printed with a trilingual text in German, English, and French.

This exhibition, the catalogue, and above all the objects themselves have caused great uneasiness among international experts in the field. Based on fieldwork done by Lorenz Homberger and others in Cameroon and Gabon, it appears to us that many of the objects shown in Heidelberg are contemporary reproductions and therefore highly problematic to the trained eye. However, a visitor or reader unencumbered by such prior knowledge cannot recognize this. The many thousands of copies flooding the market are produced in abundance not only in Gabon, but also, and primarily, in workshops in Cameroon, where they are laboriously "aged." Despite the low wages paid to those who produce these objects, quite a bit of time is spent on them. The question arises, what immediate and long-term impact such an exhibition and publication may have for the field of African art.

Our response is that it can only be a negative one. It is not only that the catalogue contains sweeping claims such as: "In view of the impressive number of authentic masks connected with the ngil ritual which are illustrated in this volume it seems sensible to compile a typology" (p. 31)--although the six examples illustrated are anything but representative of a "typology." But, more importantly, the insistence on the authenticity of the masks reinforces one's rising indignation. Did the authors believe that simply saying it would make it so?

We would not have thought it possible that exhibitions of this dubious nature could take place in public museums today. There really have been enough examples in the past, which should have been a warning, calling for the utmost vigilance. The issue of authenticity and African art has frequently been raised in African Arts, from the 1976 special issue on "Fakes, Fakers, and Fakery" in vol. 9, no. 3 through Sidney Kasfir's 1992 article on "African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow" in vol. 25, no. 2 and subsequent discussion in the Dialogue column.

In 1980 an art enthusiast's African art collection was shown at the Kunstmuseum Bern (Switzerland). At the same time, the collector expressed his desire to leave some of his works to this museum as a gift. The director, a Renaissance painting specialist, was responsible for the exhibition. To ensure quality and scholarly credibility, he consulted a renowned ethnologist who had a good reputation as a scholar of comparative theology, but whose knowledge of African art was modest--he was more interested in ritual connections than in style, quality, or even in the distinguishing characteristics of genuineness of the objects. At the time, a catalogue was also published to mark the exhibition, written by an art dealer who, however, had also been the principle seller of many of the objects belonging to the collector. To make a long story short, one of the most distinguished scholars of African art, Professor Roy Sieber, who happened to be staying in Switzerland, viewed the exhibition and came to the conclusion that 70% of the objects on display were fakes. Piet Meyer, the former curator of African Art at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, also expressed devastating criticism, as did Irwin Hersey, who began his article "Scandal in Switzerland" with the following words:

There is something strange about primitive
art which tends to make almost anyone
who gets interested in it an instant
expert, sometimes with disastrous consequences

(Primitive Art Newsletter, vol. 3, no. 12, December 1980).

After this exhibition, the atmosphere among museums, collectors, and dealers in Switzerland was poisoned for years. Those attacked attempted to defend their reputations with the help of the media and lawyers, while the critics had to spend a lot of time and a show of nerves in order to explain and defend their points of view. Their suggestion to convene a roundtable of experts and to discuss the matter on an impartial level was declined. When in the end the collector died of a heart attack shortly after the exhibition, the lack of resolution left an unpleasant atmosphere behind.

Intense criticism aimed at the museum and collectors' scene was also provoked in 2000-01, when the well-known Roemer-und Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim (Germany), primarily known for its exquisite, internationally recognized collection of Egyptian art, presented an exhibition on the theme of African art, which bore the sensational title "Auge in Auge mit Afrika. Masken und Skulpturen aus dem nordlichen Kongo" (Face to face with Africa: masks and sculptures from the Northern Congo). This exhibition also presented numerous objects of extremely questionable provenance; twenty years later, Hersey's statement about "instant experts" and "disastrous consequences" still held true.

All collectors of African art are at liberty to take delight in their objects and to want to share this enjoyment with others through the help of museums. Appreciation of objects is subjective--all collectors have their own emotional connection to the objects they find desirable. Nevertheless, it is deplorable and highly dubious if this occurs in a manner that gives the impression that modern reproductions are comparable in uniqueness and value to authentic examples of African art. Every museum is also at liberty to display objects from private collectors. However, it is highly objectionable, as well as extremely unprofessional and counterproductive, if this occurs contrary to all scholarly practices--and among these, the verification of the provenance and authenticity of the objects presented is first and foremost.

In fact, the recent case in Heidelberg symbolizes more than a devaluation of authentic African art and its creators. It can lead to a general calling into question of museums as trustworthy institutions, respected for their knowledge and mediation of knowledge. Once again, the fact was ignored that museums play an important role in establishing benchmarks for the quality and authenticity of objects. In terms of public credibility, museums are generally ranked much higher as sources of information than the media or even universities. Indeed, it is still the museum that ennobles objects and their collectors. Yet, for exactly this reason, museums are irrevocably bound to their duties and obligations. No museum in Germany devoted to the art of the Middle Ages would present an exhibition that includes contemporary imitations of works by Veit Stoss (1447/48-1533) and Tilman Riemenschneider (1468-1531), two of the most significant sculptors of the Late Gothic period, without a corresponding reference. Along the same lines, it would be quite a welcome change if museums would also put higher quality criteria into practice regarding the selection and presentation of non-European art: criteria such as verified provenance, expert opinion documented by research and publication in a scholarly context, and, where possible, scientifically based knowledge and documented usage in local context. When museums ignore this objective, they open themselves up to a type of blackmail and in effect become the playthings of the interests of collectors and dealers. In so doing, they surrender the basis of their existence, formulated during the Enlightenment, when princely and royal cabinets of curiosities were first transformed into museums whose highest aim lay in their duties to the truth of science.

Prestige, the pressures of competition, and the courting of public favor are the parameters that financial sponsors and politicians force upon the daily business of museums today. The transformation from a museum to a postmodern exhibition business sometimes cannot be halted. The fine line between "content" and "event" is becoming more and more problematic. There is hardly a museum that can step aside from the enormous pressure of having to prove itself to a larger number of visitors each year. The relationship between museums and patrons is also becoming increasingly problematic. The more politics retreats from financing cultural institutions and thereby from the responsibility for preserving the educational system, the greater is the danger of museums becoming dependent on private sponsors for their very existence.

By examining both the expectations of scholars and actual museum working methods, we can see that the pressure from potential patrons on curators and scholars has been steadily increasing according to the principle that "Whoever pays, plays." This practice cannot and should not be allowed. It is true that many collectors gladly leave their collections to museums, for the most part based on a human impulse to make a contribution to public memory. This in turn, however, compels the museums to appear obliging and friendly to collectors and potential donors. Undoubtedly, the statement "I think this is a fake" is unlikely to please any collector.

What possibilities remain open to museums that will allow them to still do justice to their responsibilities? In our opinion, first and foremost it is the responsibility to present originals, i.e., works whose authenticity has been unquestionably verified by trained specialists, who have expertise in the material culture of the area and people whose work is being exhibited and a wide knowledge of comparable material in museums and private collections. It is not sufficient to lump all non-Western art together and assume that a specialist in one non-Western field is equally authoritative in another; African art should be presented by Africanists, Southeast Asian art by its own specialists, and so on. These are the only things that will distinguish museums, even in the postmodern future, from all other media. Being able to show original objects "live"--physically present--is and will continue to be a privilege of museums. Neither Bill Gates's digital image database nor any 3-D installation, no matter how astonishing, will ever be able to replace the physical experience of being face to face with an original.

However, museums' responsibilities with regard to objects, visitors, patrons, and politicians similarly lies in their transparency, which is to say in the openness to be allowed to speak just as unconditionally about abuses. Constructive headway in scholarly debate, in exhibition practices, in the perception of the needs of museums, and among collectors, patrons, visitors, politicians, and yes, also dealers, can only take place if more courage is found on all sides to put personal stakes aside in favor of attaining the main objective, namely, to convey the greatness of non-European art. Public confidence in the institution of museums can only be maintained in compliance with these principles. Therefore, we believe that ethical considerations concerning the aspects mentioned above must play an ever-increasing role in the concept of each and every exhibition project.

Lorenz Homberger, 

Member of the International Council of Museums, Deputy Director and Curator for African Art of the Rietberg Museum in Zurich

more information's about African Arts: 

COPYRIGHT 2006 The Regents of the University of California
COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group

Volkerkundemuseum (Josefine und Eduard Portheim-Stiftung)

Hauptstrasse 235, Heidelberg, Germany
Tel: +49 6221 2 20 67 

This museum was founded in 1919 and is nowadays located in the Palais Weimar. The permanent exhibition documents the culture of the Asmat in New Guinea. Several rooms in the basement and on the ground floor present not only the life and times of the Asmat, but also the environment they were living in, cultural object such as masks, jewellery, household effects, musical instruments, arms and even a large boat, that fills almost one exhibition hall.

read also some comments by William Ernest Waites ( a member of our discussion group): 


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African art books

The Tribal Arts of Africa

The Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart

more African Art books I like

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