BMCR 2023.05.09

When art isn’t real: the world’s most controversial objects under investigation

, , When art isn't real: the world's most controversial objects under investigation. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2022. Pp. 200. ISBN 9789462703124.



The book, When Art Isn’t Real: The World’s Most Controversial Objects Under Investigation, by Andrew Shortland and Patrick Degryse, promises to bring a critical eye to the world of art forgeries and the incentives within the art market that foster an environment in which fakes are accepted as real antiquities. Unfortunately, the book fails to deliver on this important discussion. Each chapter focuses on a single object, but it is hard to see the overarching principle guiding how the chapters are arranged. Objects are not grouped by medium or are in some kind of chronological order; neither are the narratives about the pieces arranged in such a way as to draw out thematic similarities. In fact, the substance of the book equivocates on accepted forgeries, focuses on scientists as personalities rather than on scientific approaches to the study of ancient materials, and often adopts the colonialist view that it proposes to critique.

The Introduction (chapter 1) opens by giving FBI statistics on the lucrative nature of art crime and then offers a preview of the subsequent chapters, but the Introduction never provides a theoretical examination of when art isn’t real. Although the terms fake and forgery are used frequently throughout the volume, at no point is replica, fake, or forgery ever defined (neither do they appear in the glossary, although soil, rock, Ivy League, fluorine test, pernicious anaemia, and iron gall ink are all listed). There is a limited discussion on how the view of the audience defines a work of art in chapter 7, when the authors contend with connoisseurship, but there is no discussion about whether the artist’s intentions define the resulting work of art as a forgery or a replica (or as something else). There is also a total flattening of how viewpoints on the value of art have developed through time. This book is not a history of art forgery. When introducing the Turin Shroud, the authors note: “If forged, it is therefore the earliest forgery in this volume” (p. 11), but is our modern sense of a forgery as a duplicitous object an apt label in the context of the medieval religious environment in which the cloth was originally produced?

For the Getty Kouros, the authors openly allow for the possibility that it is in fact a Greek original (pp. 71-73), a point underlined by the fact that the authors then go on to discuss various illicit works of art that the Getty have since returned (pp. 73-76). The authors list six reasons why the chemical analyses of the Turin Shroud could be wrong (pp. 91-95), and here they rely on discussing scientists as personalities (“Politics, language and personalities”, pp. 95-99) rather than explaining the philosophy of science in terms of the problems of proving something vice disproving the negative. The authors also leave the door open on the Vinland Map (p. 115), even though the historicity of this document has been viewed with scepticism for several decades. In fact the Map has been shown to have been drawn with 20th century ink in repeated examinations and was unequivocally determined to be a fake in 2021 by Yale University conservators. In the last case study, the viewpoint of the book takes a remarkable pivot away from the equivocating on famous forgeries to suggesting that the ruins of Knossos, having been reconstructed inaccurately, could therefore be considered a fake (p. 173). This criticism, of course, could be leveled at almost every archaeological site reconstructed by early archaeologists, although this point is not mentioned, so general audiences may be led to believe that fanciful and zealous reconstruction is a problem at Knossos alone.

The authors are not at all self-aware, sometimes painfully so. There are strange firsthand narrations inserted into the chapters, written in italics and sometimes accompanied by photographs, which reflect a self-interest on the part of the authors to travel around to different museums and see materials and archives not on display. It is hard to reconcile the authors’ criticisms of the fetishization of art in western culture against a blithe photo of one smiling author, captioned “one of the authors at the Natural History Museum, holding the Piltdown cricket bat. Other Piltdown fragments are on the table” (p.33), particularly when there appears to be no self-consciousness that this portrait revisits many of the scenic elements as well as the general mood of contemplation of the famous Piltdown Painting (reproduced and much discussed on pp. 19-20). The accompanying italicized reminiscence notes, “what I had not appreciated from the images I had seen was how similar to the end of a cricket bat it really is…what a remarkable find” (p. 33). The Piltdown Man chapter is the longest and the most detailed; subsequent chapters start tapering in length and narrowing in breadth, while there are correspondingly more editing errors, misspellings, typos, and unsteady capitalizations in the text. By Chapter 8, the first-person narrative insertions, which ran for ten full pages and with accompanying photographs in Chapter 2, have been whittled down to just five sentences (p. 172). The entirety of these effects suggest that the authors have steadily lost interest as the book goes on, and so has the reader.



  1. Introduction
  2. Piltdown Man
  3. The Getty Kouros
  4. Turin Shroud
  5. The Vinland Map
  6. The “Amarna Princess”
  7. Leonardo and the Eye
  8. The Reconstruction of Knossos
  9. Conclusions

A Guided Bibliography