Viewpoint: The Case of the Forged Persian Antiquities


When thinking of the great empires of history, the Romans, Egyptians, and British rightly come to mind. Each of these states was remarkable. The Egyptians boasted a 3,000-year history with astounding architectural achievements. The Romans mastered art & science, extending their reach across much of the known world, and from a small island in the North Atlantic, the British, through colonization, spread their rule across the globe. The Persian Empire, however, was almost in a category by itself. It originated in the sixth century BC and lasted for over a thousand years. Some might argue the culture has lasted far longer, from early Mesopotamia, over five thousand years ago, until the fall of the Shah in 1979.

From its start in modern-day Iran, the Persian Empire ruled over land stretching west to Egypt, north to Turkey, and as far east as India. It was a bastion of science, medicine, and religious tolerance. Its grand building projects included a road system connecting the far-flung Empire and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Today, we still marvel at their architectural and artistic achievements, from the magnificent structures at Persepolis, to remarkably detailed jewelry and metalwork that survive to this day.

Our fascination with the Persian Empire has created avid collectors of objects from these early cultures. Pieces such as the Guennol Lioness, a 5,000-year-old limestone statuette, prove this point. In 2007 this 3 1/4-inch tall figure sold at auction for more than $57 million. While multimillion-dollar objects are rare, we frequently see pieces such as limestone fragments and gold figures from the Achaemenid reign, the earliest era of the Persian empire, selling for tens, and even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Challenge

It is with early Persian metalwork where we enter the story. Our team was asked to assess a collection of 15 objects identified as “Persian Antiquities,” with a claimed value approaching $600,000. While some items, such as a small box, the insured had stated values of only a few thousand dollars, some gold figures had values approaching $90,000. Even in the rarified world of antiquities collectors, these are conspicuous claims of value.

The collection was comprised primarily of metal figures and ornaments in gold, silver, or bronze. The insured stated the pieces were taken out of Iran when the Shah fell in 1979, a not entirely uncommon occurrence. The pieces had been reported stolen, so no physical inspection was possible. To increase the challenge of completing the valuation, despite the claimed values, no prior appraisal or authentication was conducted on the collection. Additionally, we were given only one or two photos of each piece to work with.

Cracking The Case

Complicating the assessment of the collection is the prevalence of reproductions or copies of Persian metalwork. Because of a longstanding fascination with antiquity and the Ancient Near East, a brisk business has existed for centuries around making honest reproductions of specific museum pieces marketed as “souvenirs” and outright fakes to be slipped into the market for a quick profit. From our initial examination of the photos provided to our team, several of the pieces appeared to fall into the latter category.

Early Persian metalwork, particularly pieces rendered in gold or silver, tends to be finely crafted. The quality of artistry often lends a freshness to pieces which can be over two thousand years old. By contrast, many of the pieces in this collection were crudely rendered, with rough handiwork and poorly thought-out composition. There were other anomalies: gold items that are known to have been made only in stone, pieces depicting scenes from different cultures, and items using modern-day design styles. This last misstep is a classic trap for the forger. No matter how hard we try, the perspective of the world we live in inevitably bleeds into our work.

The Solution

While there were several pieces we initially identified as inauthentic, others were less clear, and some did appear potentially to be genuine. Therefore, we consulted with a curator from The Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. Persian antiquities are a relatively small field, and as such, we wanted to be sure we were not missing some crucial aspect or being overly critical in our assessment. While the museum’s curators do not offer any appraisal or authentication for these situations, we were able to discuss the questions we had regarding the collection. Unfortunately, he was unable to alleviate our concerns regarding several of the items.

After a full review, we determined nine of the 15 pieces to be 20th-century reproductions of varying sorts. Rather than the $600,000 insured stated value, we identified a value of $37,500 for the collection.