Unmasking Deception: the Rise of Fakes in Cultural Heritage and Society

Nov 27, 2023

Fakes are increasingly relevant, because of their financial and cultural implications.

Museums and cultural institutions are not exempt, on the contrary, the news is that there is tendency in their coming out, showing and discussing their fake collections, finally bringing to light what they seemed to want to forget.

The conference FAKE, False and Real in Museums, Culture and Society that took place on 23 and 24 November in Brussels, wanted to discuss and document “the scope of forgeries in heritage and society, mainly in the fields of cultural, historical and artistic heritage currently in museums and cultural institutions”, probably the last place you still expect forgeries to be.

During two days about 25 among talks and lectures, treated a very broad range of topics ranging from Archaeology and Conservation to Media & Journalism, Climate Change Research/Data, Scientific Imagery and Heritage Criminology and Law.

With a focus on specific cases ranging from Japanese mermaids,  Greek antiquities, Bruegel paintings to T-rexs, the workshop included also guided visits where fake examples were shown and illustrated and a tour to the KIK-IRPA laboratories, to show what are the technologies employed to debunk forgeries.

Intentional fakes are increasingly numerous, encouraged but the rewarding business, if you are not caught, but, as it was rightly pointed out in the workshop, forgeries are not sold in a vacuum, but often documents, letters, pictures, catalogue raisonnes, in practise false provenance is created as well. Some forgers even created fraudulent certifying companies.

Moreover, forgers are not lone wolfs, often they work in connection and collaboration with group of people like art-dealers, financial experts and sometimes even museum curators.

Very interesting has also been reflection on the art & law topic, where a very insightful view was shared of what is relevant when a fake is the subject of a litigation in court. The speaker focussed on Belgian law, but the principle can be extended to almost all jurisdictions, what is most important is the burden of proof of the malignous and fraudolent transaction.

An objective proof has to be brought to court, first of all of the real nature of the object. Scholar opinions have proven to change and to contradict each other, thus there are not such a strong evidence in the end. Thus what stand the court judgment is often scientific evidence.

During the event it was also announced the creation of a Belgian “Centre of excellence on provenance and restitution” that will work also on forged documentation and false certificates.

We hope that the conference proceedings will soon be published.

Anna Pelagotti
Anna Pelagotti