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ARCHAEOLOGY Magazine Volume 54 Number 1, January/February 2001


A five-year investigation reveals that most West African terra-cotta sculptures are fakes that have fooled specialists, sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and ended up in some of the world's most prestigious museums.


An African forger named Amadou added a body and hind legs to the authentic front part of the Kuhn ram (shown in white), a Malian terra cotta sold at Sotheby's for $275,000 in 1991. (Photograph courtesy Michel Brent) [LARGER IMAGE]

On Wednesday, November 20, 1991, Sothebys New York auctioned the Kuhn collection, a well-known assemblage of African objects. On the cover of the auction catalog was the collection's masterpiece, a West African terra-cotta ram. Since thermoluminescence (TL) tests-a primary means of authentication-had indicated the figure was between 570 and 1,000 years old, there was no suspicion about the piece's age. A little before noon, the animal was sold for $275,000. The Kuhn ram has not been the object of much discussion in the years since the sale, except in Mali, its country of origin. There, rumors have it the piece may have been faked.

Since the 1980s, nearly 80 percent of the allegedly antique terra cottas that have left Mali have been counter- feit. Unlike most African countries, Mali is the source of both finely crafted ethnographic objects such as masks and fetishes, as well as archaeological artifacts such as bronze sculptures and terra-cotta statues. The latter may represent the spirits of people who flourished here for some 1,000 years, between the A.D. ninth and nineteenth centuries. Prized by collectors, Malian terra cottas have been looted from hun- dreds of archaeological sites on the middle Niger River. As these pieces have become increasingly scarce, Malian antiquities dealers have sought faked pieces from local potters. The resulting trade has seriously corrupted the art historical record: in most cases it is now simply impossible to tell if terra cottas published in scholarly works on West African art are genuine.

Confessions of a Forger

One day in 1995, while investigating a story on West African cultural heritage, I saw a terra-cotta animal leg, remarkably similar to those of the ram 1991, in the backyard of a Bamako antiquities dealer's house. I had a sudden and inexplicable feeling -- born of years of staring at these objects-that this leg had been fashioned by the same hand that had made the Kuhn ram. I decided to find out whether my intuition was correct.

Early in 1997, after persistent inquiry, I was put in touch with a man named Amadou, a Bamako potter with long, stick-like fingers who stands more than six-and-a-half feet tall. From our first meeting, it was clear I would have to pay Amadou, and pay him dearly, for any information about the leg. In the following weeks, I negotiated a price for an inter- view, an ethically dubious practice for a journalist. What credit, after all, could be given to the testimony of a crook?


Our meeting took place in March 1998 in the courtyard of a modest Bamako hotel. I asked Amadou if the Kuhn piece was real or fake. "It's a fake," be answered. "At least part of it. I was the one who made it." Amadou told me that back in October 1986, in the village of Dary, a harnlet along the Niger River, erosion caused by seasonal rains had exposed several pieces of terra cotta at an abandoned village site. The villagers soon engaged Baba Niagando, a Bandiagara antiquities dealer, to hunt for terra cottas at the site. The villagers, usually wary of outsiders, were friendly with Niagando because he occasionally hunted crocodiles in the area.

A distant relative of Niagando's, Arnadou was summoned to help dig. Niagando also shared the project with Mamadou Traore, another local antiquities dealer, and they hired both Dary and Bandiagara villagers. The'clandestine excavation lasted six months, but only three intact animals emerged from among the hundreds of terra-cotta fiugmcnts found at the site. It was here, according to Amadou, that an intact piece of the Kuhn rarn was found-front legs, chest, and head -- the rest of the animal was missing.

"From the three intact animals I was able to make more than 100 fake terra cottas, says Amadou. "As for the [Kuhn] piece, I was able to fashion it from nose to hindquarters." His handiwork from this promc period also ended up in the Belgian count Baudouin de Gnmne's celebrated Collection, as well as in Geneva's Barbier Muller Museum. The stomach of the Pregnant Ewe on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was also found among the fragments in Dary and the entire piece refashioned by Amadou.

Proof that Amadou Wasn't Lying

Once I heard Amadou's story, I hurried to Dary, some 450 miles northeast of Bamako, to find out if the villagers' version corresponded with the forger's. The village has a population of about 200. There are no roads leading to it, and three months out of the year when the Niger River overflows there is no overland access at all. There are no phones here, no electricity, and no running water.

When shown Amadou's photos of the intact pieces that had emerged from the site, Denba Traore, the village chief, quickly grasped that I knew What had gone on there nine years before. For several hours I sought information from people in various parts of the village. Those who had taken part in the digging confirmed Amadou's story, corroborating the names of the antiquities dealers involved in the digging, the time they spent at the site, the number of intact pieces recovered, and how the pieces were transported out of the bush in jute bags on a donkey cart. They also provided details concerning the authentic fragment of the Kuhn ram (its findspot and the depth at which it was buried) as well as the stomach of the Pregnant Ewe at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Everything checked out; Amadou had told me the truth.

How to Circumvent Thermoluminescence Tests

Having partially reconstructed the history of the Kuhn ram -- its export to the United States by antiquities dealer Samba Kamissoko and its acquisition by New Orleans dealer Charles Davis, I wanted to learn how Amadou faked objects that deceived experts in African art. Even if Amadou were capable of reproducing the ancient terra cottas, how was he able to circumvent thermoluminescence dating tests? (see The Limits of TL)

In addition to joining larger authentic pieces to fabricated parts, Amadou explained that he digs "holes into the clay where I can bury fragments of authentic terra cotta found at the [looted] sites; I do this after firing the new clay. As far as the piece [the Kuhn ram] you showed me is concerned, I put ancient fragments in the two hind legs and other pieces in the stomach.' Amadou's explanation was believable; I had heard about the technique a few years earlier from an Italian restorer, who described it to me as "both risky and infallible -- infallible because TL can't distinguish an inserted part from the rest of the object ... and hazardous because it's necessary that the TL technician choose to test in an area where authentic pieces were inserted."

I was interested to find out if this method worked, so I traveled to Daybreak Nuclear and Medical Systems, Inc., the Guilford, Connecticut, TL lab that had tested the Kuhn Ram. I hoped I'd be able to see the test results. After a good amount of hesitation (client documents are generally confidential), Victor Bortolot, the lab's' director, agreed to search his archives for dossier 2OIA36. Judging the object to be authentic, the technician at the time had taken only a single sample, from under the left front leg, an authentic part of the piece. Hence the favorable test results published in the Sotheby's catalog, hence the high price fetched by the piece. "But don't forget that this file dates to March 1988," Bortolot said. 'At the time our practice was to make only one test if we felt the object was good. But now, with the great number of fakes circulating, it's necessary to make at least two."

Other Fakers in the Hot Seat

I met with eight other Malian forgers to learn more about their methods. They agreed on several important points. First, Amadou's technique of concealing authentic fragments is widely practiced, but only when a large, well-preserved piece is available that can be the basis for a reconstruction, as was the case with the Kuhn ram. They also use authentic fragments to fill inconspicuous areas likely to be drilled so as not to mar the piece's appearance. These practices explain why most African antiquities dealers are so well stocked with apparently useless fragments of genuine terra cottas.

Second, these forgers apply a number of techniques to age their terra cottas artificially, like multiple immersions of an object in baths of different sorts to enhance their patina. Arnadou dips his pieces in water mixed with potassium and authentic fragments; he keeps a fire burning under the bath for a week or more. Issa Kone of Bougouni, another forger, soaks his objects in water for two months, or until the liquid evaporates. Seyni M. Karabenta, a specialist in terra-cotta fakes in the Bankoni style of southern Mali, adds to his bath mixture dried birds'nests found on the walls of many Malian houses. Forgers also obtain a desired patina by painting the terra cottas with a substance derived from either the bark of a tree or plant or colored stones. Some forgers cover their pieces with a layer of clay cooked at a low temperature that can be brushed, scraped, or otherwise modified to convey an aged look. Another technique involves burial in soil. Amadou says the Kuhn ram was buried for ten months. Forgers moisten their burial plots with various liquids: urine, waste water, acid products, animal dung. The more corrosive, the faster the artificial aging process.

One can assume the African forgers learned about the TL tests and the means to circumvent them from complicit European dealers. My sense is that these shady characters must have lived in Mali or still do, and that they are middlemen who buy from local forgers to sell to European clients. When a fake terra cotta leaves Mali, it has probably been modified several times by dealers and middlemen. Over the years, I'd suspected that multiple faking was practiced, but I didn't have real proof until I discovered the photo of the Kuhn ram at the Daybreak Laboratory in Connecticut. The ends of all four of its legs had been mutilated (even though Amadou says he delivered it intact) to better simulate the passage of the centuries.

Extent of the Traffic

Assembling disparate pieces was the first sort of faking to become popular in West Africa beginning in the 1970s. Since intact artifacts were rare, dealers, mostly from Mali, patched together fragments of authentic terra cottas from looted sites. A head, arm, or hand here, a foot or leg there -- it was up to an artful restorer to compose an intact piece. The practice was never a secret among European gallery owners, who in time realized the assembly work would be more efficiently carried out in European workshops. Helène Leloup, a well-known Paris dealer, recalls seeing photos of pieces of African terra cottas newly arrived at European galleries; no one knew which limbs belonged to which figures.

The first doctored Malian terra cottas came from Sévaré, near Mopti in central Mali, where antiquities dealer Boubou Diarra has lived for more than 60 years. Since 1968, Diarra has sold looted terra cottas and exported them illegally to European colleagues such as the Belgian dealer Émile Deletaille and French merchant Philippe Guimiot. As demand increased and fewer intact terra cottas were being recovered, Diarra started selling fakes. Naturally, he wasn't the only dealer doing this for long. By the early 1980s, a countrywide network of dealers and forgers was in place -- Youssouf Cisse in Mopti, Mobo Maiga in Djenné, Adama Ouloguem in Bamako, among others. Often dealers would scour the countryside for talented young potters, promising them lodging, food, and bicycles or scooters for faked terra cottas. Sometimes they would uproot potters with a knack for faking, moving them far from their families to villages where their production could be easily monitored.

The government has also had an indirect hand in the spread of fakes. Malian legislation forbidding the export of archaeological objects may have been passed to encourage faking discreetly; how otherwise to explain a 1994 government directive allowing local dealers to acquire "50 ancient-looking copies inspired by archaeological or ethnographic objects."

Another factor favored the spread of fakes: publication during the 1980s of monographs, art books, and auction house sale catalogs devoted to West African terra cottas. Seyni M. Karabenta of Kourikoulo, who began worldng for Boubou Diarra in 1978, told me that once catalog photos of African terra cottas started appearing in Mali, he began producing nearly 100 fakes annually. In fact, he made so many forgeries over a 15-year period that insiders started calling his fakes "Karabentos." Mobo Maiga, one of the two major Djenné dealers, confirmed that each time an authentic local piece was brought to him, he hired local sculptors to make several copies. Forgers no longer had to wait until new looted pieces emerged to copy them -- they just worked directly from photos. Faking was simpler this way and the range of objects to copy wider. According to the forgers, to whom I showed a fair number of art books such as Bernard de Grunne's Ancient Terra-cottas from West Africa and catalogs including that of the Menil Collection in the United States, the most important published African terra cottas have been copied several times, and the copies sold as ancient.

Finally, a new class of collectors, less knowledgable than their predecessors, has emerged who view authentic African art as a good financial investment. African dealers have now installed themselves in the United States, a huge market with potentially limitless profits. And American buyers are considerably less careful than their European counterparts in distinguishing authentic from fake.

The Most Recent Cons

Early on, forgers were freewheeling in their use of materials. Several specialists told me they'd seen African terra cottas made from plaster or powder ground from ancient fragments. Francine Maurer, a collector and proprietor of ASA Laboratory and Expertise in Paris and Wadgassen, Germany, recalls with amusement that, shortly after founding her company in 1986, she fell in love with a lion's head purportedly created in Djenné in the twelfth century, which she bought for nearly $4,000 at the Gallery Drouot Montaigne in Paris. Back home, the object fell to the ground, breaking into several pieces; it had been fashioned from a termites' nest!

[image] Inhabitants of the Malian village of Dary recognized a photograph of a genuine ram pillaged from the hamlet in 1986. The forger Amadou used fragments recovered during the looting to make the Kuhn ram and the Pregnant Ewe at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (Photograph by Michel Brent) [LARGER IMAGE]

Today, West African forgers are counterfeiting Nok and lfe statues from Nigeria and Benin in response to trends in collecting. Their techniques have changed, however, since buyers have become more suspicious. Asian forgers are credited with a fairly recent innovation in counterfeiting: mixing authentic fired clay with resins, pastes, and acrylic gums or epoxies of all sorts. This mélange is used not only to coat pitted surfaces but also to make pieces from scratch. The result is practically undetectable and satisfies everyone -- forgers and dealers -- but not, understandably, their clients.

Gigi Pezzoli, a connoisseur of African art and member of Milan's Center for the Study of African Archaeology, was involved in a revealing misadventure. After having had a TL test conducted on an Ife head and receiving confirmation as to its authenticity, he gave the object to his restorer. Examining the object closer, the restorer sensed something fishy. The lfe head, which TL tests determined to be authentic, was covered with an outer coating meant to hide centuries of wear and tear and elevate its price. The object was genuine, but was probably in poor condition before it had been doctored. After spending years putting fragments of authentic pieces in fakes, counterfeiters are now putting fake patinas on real pieces!

Here and there I've heard stories about super-sophisticated faking methods that involve bombarding terra cottas with X- or gamma rays to produce a false TL reading. I doubt that this is a common practice since it is too expensive and time consuming. For an object to pass TL tests, it would need to be uniformly bombarded by X- and gamma rays. But it's nearly impossible to irradiate a terra cotta uniformly without spending a great amount of time in the laboratory turning the object so that all of its sides are exposed. Another problem is calculating the X- or gamma ray dose required to mimic a certain age, something that would require the complicity of technically sophisticated partners.

An Obsession with Ancientness

There's no question that some African forgers are geniuses at what they do. Malian and Nigerian dealers have often told me how difficult it can be to distinguish fake from genuine when terra cottas arrive at their doorsteps. If those in the trade have such doubts, the deck is obviously stacked against their clients. Furthermore, West African terra cottas represent a relatively new market. It was only at the end of the 1960s that European collectors first started buying these pieces. The very 'newness' of the art leaves the door wide open for forgeries.

Also regrettable is the obsession among Western collectors with ancientness; white dealers who sell to them often disdain works of art younger than 100 years old, even when copies of wooden effigies made in Malian villages earlier in the twentieth century are some- times better executed and more beautiful than the originals. Contemporary African art is flourishing, with Zimbabwean sculptors and Congolese bronze sculptors showing the way. While some forgers have created lucrative businesses selling their own wares, many more like Amadou are waiting for the time when they can step out of the shadows and own up to their considerable skills as legitimate creative artists.

A former regular contributor to the Belgian news magazine Le Vif-L'Express, Michel Brent has for the past eight years focused on cultural heritage issues in West Africa.

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Archaeology Magazine - Volume 54, Number 1
January/February 2001
© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America