The long history of Fake Greek vases throughout the centuries

Dec 12, 2023 | Authentications & attributions, Cutural Heritage, Fakes, Instruments

When did the production of fake Greek vases begin? There are examples from various eras.

The production of fake Greek vases has a long history dating back many centuries. It can be traced back to the Roman era when Greece was the cultural reference for the Mediterranean. The practice continued during the Renaissance when the rediscovery of the classical world led to the spread of the pleasure of surrounding oneself with beautiful things, especially excavated artifacts.

However, one of the most significant periods for the production of fake Greek vases was during the Neoclassical period, reaching its peak between the 18th and 19th centuries. During this time, there was a renewed interest in classical antiquity, and many collectors and art enthusiasts sought to own artifacts that evoked the style and aesthetics of ancient Rome, Greece or Egypt.

In the early 20th century, the collecting of historical and archaeological objects experienced a significant reduction, mainly due to legislative restrictions introduced in the first decades of the century by countries such as Italy, Greece, and Egypt, which had been previously affected by looting. The buying and selling of historically valuable items were limited to acquisitions and exchanges among private individuals, with many fakes, previously inserted into collections in the 18th and 19th centuries, reintroduced to the market with all the trappings of authenticity, thanks to certified provenance from collections belonging to renowned families, collectors, and art experts. In the 20th century, despite a decrease in demand due to the tragic events of the two World Wars, the production of counterfeit artworks did not cease. The United States, with its interest in European classical art and substantial financial resources, became a privileged destination for forgers, especially after the wartime period.

In the 1950s, with a return to relative prosperity in Europe, there was a revitalization of the pleasure of owning art objects, leading to a renewed interest in the collecting of archaeological items, and a renewed interest of forgers, of course.

The chaotic building expansion of the 1960s in Italy, coupled with the lack of urban planning, resulted in numerous excavations due to the construction of thousands of building and road sites, bringing to light many excavation artifacts. This reignited interest in the collecting of ancient artifacts, but also intensified the production of fakes, especially small artifacts, as clients were no longer major museums but small collectors.

With the opening of borders to the east, not only genuine artifacts arrived from Pannonia, Illyria, and Moesia, but also fakes, such as numerous counterfeit coins from Bulgaria.

A fake terracotta statuette, now at the Museum of Art and History in Brussels

An interesting fact: among the fakes that were most successful and garnered the highest bids in the 18th and early 19th centuries were fake statuettes in erotic poses. Today, they no longer deceive anyone, but evidently, they added the pleasure of the sinful to the intellectual enjoyment of the ancient object.

To unmask or study them, the most commonly used techniques include thermoluminescence and the analysis of various components of the object, from pigment analysis to form analysis, and the presence of foreign elements with X-ray radiography and tomography.