Serious Fakes
Ideas and experience about how to detect fakes.

Ideas and experience about how to detect fakes.

- a chemical or burned smell
- wood is too light
- patina too perfect, unblemished; piece too beautiful in general (ie, the perfect Akuaba doll
with the beads, shimmering patina, scarifications in just the right spots, head perfectly round)
- patina that is uniform (especially black in color of unknown origin)
- figure has no feet and the rounded ends look sanded
- cracks or cuts that show light colored, "young" interior
- poor workmanship, and workmanship that is untraditional stylistically
- any Baule, Dogon, Bambara, Mumuye, Fang, Hemba, etc statue I see from the back of a
van, stall, or at a flea market (except perhaps if it is under eight inches tall)

Jeff Washington DC.
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I would take exception to your associating a burnt smell with a fake. African sculptures,
particularly masks, are sometimes stored in the thaching of poorly ventilated houses where
cooking is done inside. These items frequently have a greasy burnt smell, although that smell
can also be added to make a fake seem authentic. Hence, while it is not the sign of a fake, it
is no guarantee of authenticity either. In addition, the substance used to create black or dark
brown pigment in some cultures has a pitch- like, burnt smell.

Also, I am puzzled by your describing as fakes pieces where the wood is too light. Generally,
especially with masks that are intended to be worn for extended periods, I tend to be
suspicious if the piece is too thickly carved and the mask is uncomfortably heavy. Also,
remember that if the mask was intended to be worn, it should not contain any sharp bumps
on the inner surface that would injure the wearer.

Just as patina should not be uniform, wear signs, such as scratches, chips, rot, etc. should
not look as they all happened at once. Also, they should be logical, showing wear in places
where the piece is likely to have received wear. If a piece has an abrasion, it should have a
similar abrasion on another place on the same plane where the piece would have come in
contact with the abraiding surface.

African cultures tend to be very conservative, and only very rarely deviate from established
iconographical programs. I would be very suspicious of a piece that seemed too "original,"
e.g, a Hemba figure with teeth, a hermaphoditic Luba figure, etc. I would also be very careful
of pieces that combine charateristics of two or more cultures unless it is known that those
cultures actually did borrow from each other. The fake market in Nairobi now has wonderful
and even amusing phantasies combining elements from three or four cultures hundreds of
kilometers away from each other. Since most fakes are not made in the cultures they are
supposed to represent, they are frequently prone to iconographical and technical mistakes.

The other option left open to the fakers is to copy established pieces from the culture. It is
highly unlikely Frobenius' famous Luba stool or the Luba headrest in the British Museum of
two women arm in arm have a twin. Being familiar with the literature and the published
catalogues of collections make it easy to identify this type of fake.

Also, be sure that the culture actually made the type of piece in question. I've seen some
beautifully carved Songye ivory pendants on the market. I'm not sure, however, if the Songye
ever carved in ivory or carved pendants. Actually, I think not.

There are, however, all negative indicators, telling you that it is likely that the piece is a fake.
It is much harder to define elements that indicate that the piece is authentic. Here, someone
wanting to fool you will be able to make an undetectable fake; the only consideration is time
and money. Hence, what I look for first is extreme care and skill in carving. It is generally not
worth the forger's wile to make a beautifully carved and correctly patinated fake. He can make
more money turning out 10 sloppy pieces than one forgery good enough to fool and
experienced collector. Although labor in Africa is cheap, only very few have the skill and
knowledge to be able to do this.

If you happen to be in one of the areas in which the runners come in to sell their goods,
notice that pieces from certain areas seem to come on the market in waves. In Nairobi, six
months ago it was Songye, a few months later it was Mbole, which had not been on the
market for years, most recently it seems to be Hemba. I was just offered two, yes two
exceptional So'o masks--- I hadn't seen anything like this on the market for years. This
reflects where the runners go, which in the case of the DRC, depends upon the changing
fronts of the war. Your chances for authenticity are increased if you buy according to these

You can also look for non obvious signs of ware; that is to say signs that a forger would not
generally have thought of including. E.g, spittle stains around the mouth of a mask along with
oil stains fromn the wearer's skin (generally nose and forehead), slight abrasions left by the
attached raffia costumes to the holes around a mask, careful and time consuming local
repairs, libation patina--- palm oil, blood, egg--- on fetish objects.

As indicated, all of these elements can be easily added by an expert forger
except, of course, carving skill and painstaking attention to detail, which simply is not cost
effective for the dealer.

Bruce Leimsidor.
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