Forgery is one of the oldest professions. If an item can be bought, it can also be faked: Bank notes, antiquities, sports jerseys and medication.
So the Royal Ontario Museum has created a comparative exhibition of forgeries spanning different continents, cultures, and thousands of years. Viewers can try their skills at telling a real Prada handbag or Ancient Greek figurine from a fake.
“Greek figurines became very popular by 1870,” explains coordinating curator Paul Denis. “By 1876, there were none. All the ancient figurines available had been bought up. Forgeries suddenly exploded, simply because there was a demand for them, and the forged figures were in circulation for decades.
“Even the ROM got burned, back in the 1920s,” adds Denis.
The convincing counterfeits include bronze mirrors from Ancient China and fragments of sandstone relief from Ancient Egypt. Every fake is accompanied by its authentic counterpart in an interactive format that provides clues so museum visitors can decide which of the two is the real deal. Viewers can guess and then find out if they nailed it, and learn about the tools and techniques of discerning a fake from the genuine article.
But if you have no eye for older stuff, there are also examples of counterfeit computer software, Gucci sunglasses, CCM Maple Leaf jerseys and helmets.
“We got those from the RCMP, with help from the Canadian Standards Association,” Denis says. “Those helmets are no good. Playing with a bad helmet is obviously dangerous. And it gets worse. There are fake medications for cancer, for example, which people will buy online.”
The internet is a sinister frontier for forgers and unscrupulous vendors selling placeboes to desperate people. But the counterfeiter’s reach extends to academic ivory towers as well.
“You can sell fake fossils to museums and universities,” Denis says. “There are varying degrees of forgeries. Some fossils are just carved from stone, complete fakes. Or, a dealer may join two fossils to make one pastiche. That way they’re worth more. Fossils can also be enhanced — a squid fossil can be selectively carved to have more squid-like elements, so something that is genuine is corrupted for more money.”
University professors will even buy forged fossils deliberately, for teaching purposes. But because admitted fakes cost almost nothing, there is a huge incentive to fool the experts.