Provenance, fakes, uncertainty and ethics: The problems with legally purchased antiquities.


Gilded bronze statuette in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum attributed to Akhenaten by its label. Author Photograph.

The Barcelona Egyptian Museum contains many fascinating objects, some inspired presentations of Egyptian artefacts and two interesting exhibitions that further explain aspects of ancient Egyptian culture. My previous post (The Egyptian Museum of Barcelona) covers the highlights of the museum but only touched on the issues my visit raised concerning the presence of possible forgeries and the ethics of creating a modern museum from purchased antiquities. This post follows on from my previous review and another recent post about black market antiquities to consider the nature of purchased antiquities and the implications of them for reviewers and researchers of museum collections.

To post, or not to post?

In the Barcelona Egyptian Museum is a small gilded bronze statuette that is attributed to Akhenaten by its label (left). My instagram image of this particular artefact prompted a number of disbelieving comments. There are several aspects of the style of the statuette that are suspicious, such as the way the kilt drapes over the thighs. The date is also incongruous. I have yet to identify a single comparable statuette of this type from the Amarna period (so if anyone reading this can think of one, they are welcome to put a link or reference in the comments). Bronze statuettes are much more commonly associated with later periods of Egyptian history. In fact the Barcelona Museum also has a number of gilded bronze statuettes of divinities dated to the Late Period, such as a gilded bronze statuette of the goddess Neith (below right), that the object label attributes to the XXVI Dynasty (i.e. within the Late Period as expected).  All these aspects combine to raise doubts about the authenticity of the Akhenaten or, at the very least, its attribution. One alternative to an out-and-out forgery is that the statuette was originally of an unnamed Late Period pharaoh, later falsely identified as the famous Akhenaten by an unscrupulous antiquities dealer to raise its value.


Gilded bronze statuette of the goddess Neith. Identified as XXVI Dynasty. Author Photograph.

The reaction to my Instagram post about the Akhenaten statuette was my first intimation that writing a blog about the Barcelona Egyptian Museum might not be straightforward. Having read the many questioning comments I wondered whether I should continue with my intended post. Various questions bubbled up. Was it ethical to write about objects that may be forgeries? What impact might it have on my reputation? How could I be fair the museum, while writing about the possibility of forgeries being on display? And should I even consider writing about a museum when most of the objects had been purchased so recently on the antiquities market, given that I am generally of the opinion that the purchase of legal antiquities is inadvisable at best and unethical at worst?

The obvious solution would have been to leave well alone. I could not be criticised if I didn’t post anything. But that would deny me the opportunity to review the other interesting artefacts in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum. It would also be cowardly. The debate my image of the Akhenaten had provoked and my reaction to it, exemplifies the difficulties we experience in working with purchased and unprovenanced antiquities. If I simply ignored the problem I would be contributing to the silence about these issues. This post is therefore an attempt to interrogate the questions and anxieties unprovenanced antiquities raise in the minds of researchers and how these influence our reactions to and treatment of such objects.

Purchase and provenance


The false door and two side panels from the VI Dynasty tomb-chapel of Iny in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum. Author Photograph.

As I mentioned in my previous post, most of the object labels in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum do not give details of the provenance or the origin of the artefacts. Research on the museum’s website and wikipedia page revealed that the collection was a recent creation, with most of the artefacts purchased on the antiquities market since 1992. Further evidence of the recent origin of the collection came from the bibliographies of the artefacts from the Barcelona Egyptian Collection that featured in the Moda y Belleza catalogue of the exhibition of the same name (D’Amicone 2011). Many of the objects currently in the museum featured in the catalogues of the major auction houses from which they had been purchased from 1992 onwards.

Since most artefacts purchased on the antiquities market originate in private collections and very few come from archaeological excavations, they rarely come with detailed archaeological provenance. It is almost impossible to identify the precise house, tomb or temple context for a given object, and it may also be difficult to determine which site, region and period an artefact came from. At best the occurrence of named individuals on artefacts sometimes allows them to be associated with other objects, a known tomb, temple or site. This is the case with the VI Dynasty false door stela (image above) and reliefs of Iny in the Barcelona Museum, which were identified as part of Iny’s now lost tomb-chapel and associated with further reliefs from the same structure that are now in other museums. The multiple XII and XIII Dynasty stela now in various private collections and museums but originally from the Abydos North Offering Chapels (Simpson 1974) represent a more extensive example of the same process of archaeological detective work.

But detectival methods of assigning provenance are usually only applicable to inscribed objects and even if an object can be associated with a site or assemblage it is rarely possible to reconstruct its precise archaeological provenance to the level of a findspot or room. Even though we know that the false door and relief fragments in the Barcelona Museum come from the tomb-chapel of Iny, we do not know where that tomb-chapel was. We might suspect that it was in the Memphite region, but we cannot know precisely where. We do not know what else formed the tomb-complex or what other archaeological structures and artefacts might have been associated with it.

For most artefacts that lack archaeological provenance, the situation is even worse. Usually the only contextual information available is a rough date and perhaps the general site or region where the artefact originated, as determined by stylistic comparison with similar objects of known provenance.

Forgeries or rare artefacts?


The statue of Queen Tetisheri in the British Museum, now thought by many to be a forgery. (Courtesy of David Blogg)

Artefacts that lack archaeological provenance are inevitably more likely to attract suspicions about their authenticity. Forgers have been active as long as there have been collectors, but a number of high profile recent cases indicate that forgery is increasing in ‘growth’ areas of the antiquities market including religious artefacts, biblical archaeology (Burleigh 2008) and (naturally) Egyptian objects.

Recently purchased artefacts are not the only potential forgeries. The proposition that the British Museum’s statue of Tetisheri is a forgery demonstrates how an artefact accepted as genuine for decades can later be questioned. Given the varied origins of most Egyptian collections, it is probable that every one has at least one or two forgeries. But those with a higher proportion of purchased artefacts are likely to contain more forgeries.

While scientific testing can sometimes resolve questions of authenticity, they are more often a matter of expert opinion and can therefore provoke considerable debate among experts with different views. That there is still debate about the authenticity of the statue of Tetisheri, demonstrates the problems of discerning forgeries from genuine antiquities.


Gaudily painted pottery coffin mask with female face.  Dated to the New Kingdom according to it’s label. A similar mask has recently been offered at auction. Author Photograph.

An artefact is most likely to be accepted as genuine if it is typical of its period and material in style and execution. The bronzes of (supposedly) Akhenaten and Neith, which began this post exemplify this feature of archaeological research. Since a large number of Late Period statues of deities are known the Neith is much more easily accepted as genuine than the incongruous Akhenaten.  However, there is no archaeological reason why one should be more genuine than the other if both are unprovenanced. The only difference is that the Neith conforms to our art-historical expectations, while the Akhenaten doesn’t. Unfortunately if we always suspect the unusual, and accept the familiar we risk dismissing genuine artefacts because they are different, thereby losing the information they could provide about the variety of Egyptian art and consolidating cliched ideas about the conformity of Egyptian artefacts. It would be ironic indeed if further research and scientific testing revealed the Akhenaten to be genuine, while the Neith was a forgery.

Suspiciously poor quality or just not typical of ‘Egyptian art’?


Roman pottery coffin dating from the 3rd to 4th century AD (E-620). Purchased from Christies in 2002. Author Photograph.

Another facet of this problem is the tendency to assume that poor-quality or ‘unEgyptian’ artefacts are fake. Amongst the coffins in the Barcelona Museum are two painted faces from pottery coffins, one male and one female (image above left). These are exactly the kind of artefacts that might be written off as fakes, but an almost identical female mask was recently offered for sale at auction. There is still the possibility that all three masks are forgeries, but it would be unwise to write them off without further research just because they are a little outside the norm or do not match our expectations of Egyptian art.

An astonishingly hideous 3rd to 4th century AD Roman pottery coffin (E-620) raises similar questions and doubts (right). There is no doubt it is a truly ugly object to our eyes, but just because it doesn’t conform to our expectations does not necessarily make it a fake. It is entirely possible that the owner was satisfied that the coffin would perform its function, and utterly uninterested in its (to our minds) aesthetic deficiencies. The scientific discovery of poorly formed, badly decorated or illiterately inscribed artefacts demonstrates that the requirements of ancient Egyptian purchasers were not necessarily the same as ours. The pseudo-hieroglyphs on the Late Period coffins excavated from Iurudef’s tomb at Memphis were presumably thought sufficient by their owners, but could easily have been thought a modern forgery if they had not been scientifically excavated (Martin 1991, 144).

Genuine components, modern design?


Bead dress in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum described as IV Dynasty (E-843) by its label. Note the winged-scarab motif on the bodice. Author Photograph.

In the Barcelona Egyptian Museum is an artefact (E-843) described as ‘Dress composed of beads. Faience and turquoise. Old Kingdom’. There are several curious aspects of this artefact that could lead to the assumption that it is a forgery. Firstly, unlike the excavated Old Kingdom bead-net dresses in the Petrie Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts the Barcelona dress only appears to cover the front of the person. Given the structure of the shoulder straps and bodice there is insufficient bead netting to cover the sides and back of a human. The design of the dress, combining broad shoulder straps with a long skirt, is generally consistent  with the excavated Old Kingdom dresses, but the inclusion of a winged-scarab motif in the bodice (see feature image above the title of this post) strikes a discordant note, both because it is a funerary motif and because such beaded images are more generally associated with the Late, Ptolemaic or Roman periods of Egyptian history, rather than the Old Kingdom.

Given these discrepancies it would be very easy to write this off as a forgery, but it is much more likely to be a recreation of a dress using ancient beads, probably from several different periods, made by some antiquities dealer to increase the value of his merchandise. Indeed the Moda y Belleza catalogue (D’Amicone 2011, 195) comes to this exact conclusion, but because this is not reflected on the object label it would be easy to draw the wrong conclusions. Unfortunately the uncertainty that is provoked by the dissonance between the nature of the object and the information on the label does not just affect this one artefact, but could potentially cause the viewer to question the authenticity of others as well.

The problem of uncertainty

None of the artefacts in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum which have provoked concern have been demonstrated to be forgeries, and indeed many (if not all) of them may yet prove to be genuine. However, the uncertainty that is provoked by objects like E-843 or the incongruous Akhenaten does not just affect the reception of those artefacts. By extension it can lead the suspicious researcher to question other objects in the same collection or similar artefacts elsewhere. As I experienced when considering how to write about the artefacts in Barcelona, even the possibility of reviewing fakes can lead to anxiety on the part of a researcher about the ethics of their actions, the reactions of their peers and the impact of their research on their academic reputation.

This anxiety is not without cause. There is a general sense that the presence of forgeries in a collection should be a source of shame. This might be justified if artefacts are envisioned as primarily economic assets, where the sale of a forgery is tantamount to fraud. But it seems a bizarre position to take when in almost every other aspect of archaeological discourse we emphasise the scientific and historical value of artefacts and rail against their treatment and sale as economic assets. If we truly believe an artefact is of purely scientific value, then finding a forgery is like locating an erroneous reading in a set of scientific data. It is useful to identify and exclude it from our research, but should otherwise cause minimal anxiety. This is not to minimise the risk of forgeries skewing archaeological discourse, but it does seem that our reactions to them can be out of all proportion to the risk they pose to scientific enquiry.  Perhaps more importantly the treatment of forgeries and potential forgeries as a source of embarrassment and shame precludes honest discussion of this problem amongst both museum and archaeological professionals and prevents us from exploring the impact of forgeries upon our research.

Part of this impact is the effect uncertainty has upon research. As I have demonstrated above it is incredibly easy to doubt the authenticity of unprovenanced and purchased artefacts, particularly when they do not have many obvious parallels or do not fit with our preconceived ideas about Egyptian artefacts. This has a significant impact upon our understanding of Egyptian culture and our ability to study unprovenanced artefacts. Almost any artefact that has been purchased (whether recently or many decades ago) without clear archaeological provenance might be suspected. But since the more typical an object is the more likely it is to be accepted, genuine but atypical or unusual artefacts run a greater risk of being dismissed as forgeries. On the other hand fake but typical objects might well be included in catalogues and typologies because they fit our preconceptions. Inevitably this risks skewing our research towards the ‘typical’ and prejudicing us against the unusual. At the same time anxiety about publishing or displaying an artefact that later turns out to be fake can inhibit the research and display of genuine but unusual artefacts.

Dealing with legally purchased antiquities


Silver diadem, probably of 17th Dynasty date and likely recovered from Dra Abu el-Naga, West Bank, Luxor. This artefact has an established history in a series of private collections and is currently on loan to the British Museum from the al-Sabrah collection. (Author Photograph)

One obvious way to eliminate the anxieties associated with unprovenanced antiquities is to avoid them altogether individually and corporately. This is an admirably ethical position, but like many noble ideals it also raises some practical questions. Should we just ignore collections like the Barcelona Egyptian Museum, either from anxiety that it may include forgeries or ethical objections to the recent purchase of the artefacts? If the ethical objection is foremost, then how long must an artefact have been in a museum before we can legitimately engage with it? There are many thousands of purchased antiquities that reside in museum collections around the world, including many important artefacts held by major museums. Can we arbitrarily decide that research into the Barcelona Egyptian Museum artefacts is unethical, while working with museum collections that include artefacts purchased during an earlier era?  Is it ethical to ignore artefacts that may provide important archaeological evidence to confirm or challenge our research just because they were purchased? As I discovered when visiting the Barcelona Egyptian Museum if we decide to ignore purchased artefacts then we potentially lose important evidence and ignore interesting artefacts, but when we engage with them we must wrestle with ethical concerns and fears about accidentally including forgeries in our research. I cannot provide definitive answers to these questions but perhaps it is time we began discussing these ethical and professional concerns more openly?

As we do so we should remember that all museums include purchased antiquities, that any museum or expert can be deceived by fakes and it is highly probable that every museum has at least a few forgeries hiding away in the stores (and sometimes even on display). While no-one would argue that we should accept the casual display of known fakes, we should recognise that forgeries occur and can be difficult, time-consuming and contentious to identify. The only way to manage unprovenanced artefacts and suspected fakes is to open an honest discussion about forgeries within Egyptian collections, the difficulties inherent in identifying them and the impact of forgeries and unprovenanced antiquities upon our research. Negotiating the ethical and professional questions raised  is never going to be easy, but if we can be honest about these issues we can develop productive debates and advance our research.


Burleigh, N. 2008. Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land. Smithsonian.

D’Amicone, E. (ed.) 2011 Moda y Belleza en el Antiguo Egipto. Exposición presentada en el Museu Egipci de Barcelona 20 de Octubre de 2011 – 20 de Julio de 2012. Museu Egipci de Barcelona: Fundació Arqueològica Clos.

Martin. G. T. 1991. The Hidden Tombs of Memphis. London: Thames and Hudson.

Simpson, W. K. 1974. The Terrace of the Great God at Abydos: Offering Chapels of Dynasties 12 and 13. New Haven.


I am indebted for Manon Schutz of Oxford University for information about several of the artefacts, to David Blogg for the photo of Tetisheri when she was still on display and to Roland Enmarch for the reference to the tomb of Iurudef.

I am also grateful to all of those who commented about these artefacts online and especially to Luca Miatello, Dario Nannini, Carlo Rindi Nuzzolo, the online members of the Facebook groups Sussex Egyptology Society Unofficial Page and the Coffin Club for their suggestions regarding possible parallels and dates for some of these artefacts.

I am also grateful to all the friends, colleagues and museum professionals who have engaged with me on this subject thorough constructive discussions about forgeries and the ethics of studying purchased antiquities. Long may these debates continue to inform professional discourse.


About hannahpethen

Having completed my PhD in archaeology at the University of Liverpool, I am now a freelance archaeologists working with landscape and topographic survey and satellite imagery. I specialise in GIS, GPS, desk-based assessment and landscape projects and have a particular interest in Egyptian archaeology.
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