On the invention of styles by fakers

As anybody active in the world of African art, I’ve had my share of discussions about forgeries. An argument which often returns in many of these is the reasoning that it is not because you have never seen a certain type or style of object before, you can call it a fake. Fakers, this reasoning states, don’t invent styles, because that wouldn’t be profitable. In this view, they focus only on popular and valuable styles that will sell easily. Unfortunately, this argument is invalid. I won’t give examples from the African art world here, but do wish to share the well-documented and incredible story of the ‘Post-Pre-Colombian’ ceramicist Brigido Lara.

In July 1974, Mexican police arrested and imprisoned a group of individuals from the Gulf Coast State of Veracruz for the possession of a collection of what appeared to be looted Pre-Columbian ceramics. Though such objects have long been protected as national patrimony, the high prices they fetch in the auction houses and galleries of New York and Europe fuel a contraband traffic in antiquities. At the trial of the accused, archeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) testified that the ceramics had been taken from ancient sites in the Cempoala region, in the central part of the state of Veracruz. Convicted largely on the basis of this testimony, the individuals were sent to prison for their role in this illegal trade in looted objects.

From his cell, one of the convicted individuals, Brigído Lara, made an unusual demand. At his request, clay was brought to the jail. From within his cell Lara then proceeded to create indisputable proof of his innocence—identical reproductions of the pieces that had sent him to jail. He was not a looter at all, it turned out, but a wrongfully accused forger, an accomplished imitator of ancient styles. For the past twenty years he had been fabricating contemporary copies of ancient ceramics. Though he worked in many styles including Aztec and Mayan, his specialty was the ceramic wares of the ancient Totonac, a population that inhabited Veracruz and flourished between the seventh and twelfth centuries a.d. The replicas were taken from the jail and once again shown to the same experts from the INAH whose testimony had led to the convictions. Once again the verdict was rendered: These too were judged to be ancient pieces from Cempoala.

Read the full story here. Lara claims to have made approximately 40,000 fakes prior to his arrest. Some became part of prestigious international collections: the Dallas Museum of Art, the Morton May collection at the Saint Louis Art Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and important collections in France, Australia, Spain, and Belgium all contained pieces that Lara claimed to have made. In fact, Lara may have been so prolific that he had a hand in shaping what is today understood as the classic Totonac style! As remarkable as Lara’s tale is, he’s certainly not alone and also in Africa similar practices unfortunately emerged throughout the twentieth century. As with the Lara case, some examples of these invented styles or types eventually got published and in such a way started to build credentials – complicating the discussion about their true origin.