On Wednesday 13 March, Prof. Luca Guiliani (Humboldt University, Berlin) presented his theories that the British Museum’s Warren Cup is a forgery. These are not new theories to Prof. Giuliani, as he has apparently expressed them in Germany before bringing his thoughts to a public forum at King’s College, London. Frankly, these are not new theories at all, as many have whispered and even published their concerns about the Cup’s status as an ancient object for as long as it has been on view in the British Museum. See, for example, Maria Teresa Marabini’s examination in Bollettino d’Arte 2008.
When it comes to “fake-busting,” or questioning the authenticity of works of art, especially ancient ones, there are a few typical avenues to pursue, bases on which to judge authenticity:
- state of preservation
It appears that Prof. Giuliani is largely challenging the Cup on its iconography, specifically the explicit scenes of homosexual activity. These scenes are apparently unique on ancient silver cups, though there are some parallels in terracotta vessels. (See, for example, Clarke 2001, Looking at Lovemaking, figs. 24-27). Giuliani links the sex scenes to E. P. Warren’s well-known taste for such imagery which can be seen in many ancient objects purchased by the art patron and given or sold to other collections, like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (like the Pan Painter’s name vase, to cite just one example). It seems Giuliani suspects one of two scenarios: that Warren commissioned the silver cup, requesting imagery which appealed to his personal taste for both ancient objects and homosexual imagery. Or a forger, perhaps working with an agent who knew Warren’s preferences, created the cup with the collector in mind.
In the Guardian article, Giuliani is noted as questioning the imagery on the grounds of its uniqueness for an ancient Roman silver vessel. Yet the iconography for this genre of household object is, in fact, quite varied and sometimes very surprising. No one to my knowledge has questioned the authenticity of the Tiberian Boscoreale cups with scenes of triumph. This imagery is, as far as I know, unique for silver tableware, yet very familiar for large-scale public monuments.
“Uniqueness” for me is always shaky ground on which to build an argument against authenticity of an ancient object. One must be aware of the many lacunae we have in the archaeological record–could another silver cup with explicit homosexual imagery be excavated in some field project this summer? Could such cups have been melted down en masse during times of economic crisis or early Christian prudery? And considering this is a silver cup, for private use in a private setting, could a wealthy Roman have commissioned this piece specifically for his own tastes? It need not have been one of a series of sexually-explicit vessels produced in large quantities for the general market.
One hopes that after Giuliani’s public speculation on the basis of iconography that he will follow up with examination of the materials and technique for the cup, although I know of no specific problems in attributing the repoussé work to an ancient craftsperson. The Guardian article notes that Prof. Dyfri Williams, who has long supported the case for authenticity, suggested the composition of the Warren Cup’s silver could be an important piece of evidence in putting the question to bed (as it were). Yet we art historians and archaeologists have frequently been stymied by the results of laboratory tests when requesting yes-or-no answers to our questions regarding forgery. See, for example, the Boston Snake Goddess or the Getty Kouros. In fact, the Museum has examined the silver composition and the corrosion layers on the cup, noting that both aspects are consistent with other authentic pieces. That the silver of the Warren Cup is similar to other Roman silver might still be an ambiguous result: a crafty forger might have melted down scraps of ancient silver cups to make this extraordinary one.
When it comes to the provenance and provenience of the Warren Cup, the story is, sadly, a familiar and unhelpful one. The British Museum’s database provides information only as good as what E. P. Warren was able to give: the cup was “said to be found at Bittir, near Jerusalem.” In other words, a completely useless findspot when it comes to determining authenticity. As for Giuliani’s charge that Warren collected other “counterfeit pieces,” that seems something of a red herring in the argument at hand. Had the British Museum purchased the cup directly from Warren in the early 20th century, at a time when studies on such cups was in something of an infancy, the Museum could be excused for falling for such a fantastic object. But the Museum bought this in 1999, with the benefit of, for example, Donald Strong’s 1979 study of Roman silver plate. Is not the onus on the buyer rather than the collector to be confident in authenticity when making such an extraordinary purchase? In other words, don’t blame poor E. P. Warren–having been duped by other fakes–for one museum having bought a forgery!
Having not seen the Warren Cup with my own eyes for some years, I have to say I don’t have my own firm opinion on its authenticity. I confess I’ve sometimes thought the homosexual imagery was too good to be true, or wishful thinking on the part of Warren or other scholars who work on queer theory or queer politics in antiquity. As noted above, I don’t always think uniqueness is the best foundation on which to build a case for forgery when it comes to ancient objects, yet the Warren Cup has troubled me in this regard. If Prof. Giuliani is to follow up on his line of questioning, I would hope he would look further into the purported provenance, study more images of explicit sex scenes in terracotta drinking vessels, and consider the possibility that this might have been an ancient, private commission.