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Fakes & copies

How the entire British art world was duped by a fake Egyptian statue

The British Museum, Christie’s, the National Art Collections Fund and the Inland Revenue, among others, were all fooled

The British art establishment has been fooled by an Egyptian statue which was recently bought by Bolton Museum. The Amarna Princess, valued at £500,000, was authenticated by the British Museum, sold through Christie’s, funded by the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and the National Art Collections Fund (NACF), accepted for a tax douceur by the Inland Revenue, exhibited in the Hayward Gallery, and published as a major acquisition in the Burlington magazine.

Sadly, the 52cm-tall alabaster torso of a princess now seems to be a fake, probably originating from Bolton, Greater Manchester and dating from the 21st century.

The acquisition was trumpeted on 26 September 2003, with the announcement that “an important piece of history will stay in Bolton”, following the purchase of the 3,300-year-old statuette from a local private collector. It was said to have been brought to the city by the owner’s great grandfather in 1892, who purchased it at auction at Silverton Park, Devon, the seat of the fourth Earl of Egremont.

Pre-eminent

Bolton is very unusual among regional museums in having a specialist curator of Egyptology. She was Angela Thomas, who was excited when approached with the sculpture around four years ago. In a paper dated 21 August 2002, she wrote that “the quality of the torso is superb”, and the piece was of pre-eminent importance. She believed the figure almost certainly represented one of the daughters of Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, and it dated from BC 1350-34. Parallels were noted with an Amarna torso in the Louvre.

In spring 2003 the statue was sent to the British Museum, where it was informally examined by keeper Vivian Davies and many of his curatorial colleagues. No one there questioned its authenticity.

Christie’s, which was handling the sale, presumably had its own experts authenticate the work. It told Bolton Museum that the owner was keen for the sculpture to go to a public collection. A price of £500,000 was negotiated. The owner requested anonymity.

The Amarna princess was deemed to be of pre-eminent quality and a tax douceur was approved by the Inland Revenue’s Capital Taxes Office, for a private treaty sale. Christie’s was proud of its role, illustrating the statue as one of the six highlights of the year in an advertisement for its Heritage & Taxation Advisory Service. Taking the tax douceur into account, Bolton needed to raise £440,000.

The key funder was to be the NHMF, which in August 2003 approached British Museum curator Jeffery Spencer. He accepted the provenance supplied, and found nothing to question in the style of the alabaster carving, declaring it to be authentic and worth the proposed £500,000 (before tax remission). Based on this assurance, NHMF offered a grant of £361,000. NACF, which also relied on expertise from the British Museum, provided £75,000. The Friends of Bolton Museum raised £2,500 and a small grant was made by the Bradshaw Gass Charitable Trust. The deal was concluded in September 2003.

The Amarna princess was immediately dispatched to London as a last-minute addition to NACF’s “Saved!” exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. Following the show’s closure in January 2004, the sculpture was returned to Bolton, to become the star attraction of the museum’s Egyptian display. In spring 2004 a news item appeared in the Egypt Exploration Society’s Bulletin, alerting all Egyptologists, and in December 2004 the Burlington illustrated it in a supplement on recent sculpture acquisitions by UK public collections. It had therefore become a nationally-known acquisition.

Alarm

Serious questions about the Amarna princess were only raised earlier this year after an “Assyrian” relief was taken to the British Museum for expertise, by a private owner. It, along with two other smaller objects, was examined by keeper John Curtis, and his suspicions were aroused. It was then established that the Assyrian items had come from the same source as the Amarna princess, and alarm bells began to ring.

By this time Bolton had a new curator. Ms Thomas had retired in February 2005, to be replaced by Tom Hardwick in October. It seems that he had only seen the Amarna princess in its case, and had not questioned it until the alert from London.

Last month Scotland Yard issued a brief statement: “Detectives from the Metropolitan Police Art & Antiques Unit have removed an item from a Lancashire museum, and a small number of items from a London museum, as part of a continuing investigation.” On 16 March a 46-year-old man was arrested and on the following day a 83-year-old man, both on suspicion of forgery. They are bailed to appear at a Lancashire police station on 10 and 11 May.

Acting Chief Inspector Martin Freschini of Bolton Police told The Times that a house which they raided had resembled a workshop. “There were items of marble and ancillary equipment for making statues and the like,” he said.

Lessons

It is easy to be wise after the event, but undue importance seems to have been attached to the statue’s apparent provenance, and information provided was not rigorously examined. Instead, there was relief that the Amarna princess appeared to have been in the UK for well over a century, which meant there was no suggestion that it had been wrongly removed from Egypt.

The Silverton Park auction catalogue records three lots which could possibly have been the Amarna princess, but none of these are sufficiently well-described: a draped figure of a female, five marble statuettes and eight Egyptian figures.

It is surprising that when the Amarna princess appeared, no one appears to have remarked on the coincidence that an item with a Devon provenance should have turned up at Bolton, which happens to hold the finest collection of Egyptian antiquities in a medium-sized UK regional museum. It meant, however, that the museum was desperate to add the statue to its displays, so there was a ready buyer.

Stone statues cannot be subjected to scientific analysis, unless there are traces of pigments, so judgements have to be made solely on the basis of connoisseurship. Egyptologists see plenty of crude fakes, which are easily dismissed, but the problem is with very clever forgeries.

The Amarna princess seemed to be authentic, and there were several factors which added to this general impression. It is just a torso, whereas most fakers include heads, since these add greatly to the value. There is a hole at the bottom, apparently for a 19th-century mount, and this appeared consistent with the early provenance. There was also what appeared to be weathering along edges of the sculpture, which made it superficially less attractive, and therefore somewhat unusual in a fake.

However, on a recent close inspection, Bolton Museum determined that the Amarna princess appeared to be a fake, and this was admitted by council leader Barbara Ronson last month.

The funders of the Amarna princess are now considering their position. NHMF director Stephen Johnson admitted that he was “extremely shocked to hear about this case”, and an attempt may be made to reclaim the grant. David Barrie of the NACF said that “if money is returned to Bolton Museum, then we would expect to be reimbursed.”

The tale of the Amarna princess is likely to have a considerable impact on UK museums. Views on authenticity do change, but rarely quite so quickly after a purchase, at least for an important and expensive object. Fears are already being expressed that museums and funding bodies will become much more cautious in buying major antiquities, and this will unfortunately be yet another discouragement to making acquisitions.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 169 May 2006