Royal Ontario Museum displays its fakes

For the Fakes and Forgeries exhibit opening Saturday at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, curators often had difficulty distinguishing between the real artifacts in its collection and the phoneys.
Relief showing the head of Pharoah Montuhotep, left, is real and dates from 2000 BC. Relief of Pharoah, right, is a fake created in the 20th century. ((Royal Ontario Museum))
Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum is not afraid to admit it has been taken in.

In fact, while putting together the Fakes and Forgeries exhibit opening Saturday, curators often had difficulty distinguishing between the real artifacts in its collection and the phoneys.

Seven cases in the exhibit feature fakes from the ROM's collection, everything from "fossils" made in the recent past, to fake rain gods from Mexico.

The interactive exhibit invites viewers to try to tell the real from the forgery.

"Most of the artifacts were bought in the past, in the early 20th century," when there was neither the level of knowledge nor the testing techniques to detect skilful forgeries, curator Paul Denis said in an interview with CBC News.

He said the ROM periodically reviews its collections, working with a network of international experts who understand the intricacies of the arts, carvings and materials of a particular period.

"It's a matter of handling a lot of objects and sometimes feeling them," Denis said.

To determine that a relief carving of an Egyptian pharaoh was a fake, curators had to note the inaccurate shape of the figure's crown as well as facial features that were not in the style of other artifacts of the period.

"Some objects can be tested to see if they are forgeries," Denis explained.

An urn in the shape of Cociji, god of rain. This fake made in the early 20th century is a clever reproduction of the Zapotec style. ((Royal Ontario Museum))
A technique called thermo-luminescence can determine when a ceramic object was fired. The clever fakes of Zapotec rain gods from Mexico seem as beautiful as the real ceramic figures, dating from AD 200-500.

But a thermo-luminescence test can determine which object was made 100 years ago and which 1,700 years ago.

The creation of forgeries is motivated by profit, and forgers create artifacts that are in high demand, Denis said.

There is a long tradition of fakery in Chinese and Greek art and artifacts because collectors were looking for those kinds of objects in the 19th century.

The exhibit displays several terracotta figures that resemble Tanagra figurines from ancient Greece, but were made in the 1870s.

A bronze spearpoint, reputed to be from the China of 900 BC, was beautifully worked and artificially aged to make it look as if it had been recently taken from a tomb. Curators detected traces of clay in the handle that proved it had never been a real spear.

Microsoft Corp., the Bank of Canada and the Canadian Anti-Counterfeiting network are among the sponsors of the exhibit.

It includes displays devoted to counterfeiting of software, currency and modern objects, ranging from hockey jerseys to Goofy figures to toothpaste, along with a strong dose of advice for consumers against buying the forgeries.

Denis said the idea for the exhibit came from the ROM, but the sponsors co-operated in creating exhibits about modern counterfeiting.

Fakes and Forgeries opens Saturday and will be at the ROM until April 4. It is then scheduled to tour Canada with stops in Lethbridge and Lloydminster in Alberta, and Goderich, Minesing, St. Catharines, Peterborough, Ottawa and Guelph in Ontario.