Posts Tagged ‘art’

Those of you who know me personally know I am a former professor of classical art and archaeology. Three years ago, personal circumstances as well as shenanigans at my institution forced me to leave higher education. I’ve since landed well as a high school history teacher. The short version of the post below is that being outside Academia has made me happier and healthier. It’s taken me time to lose the resentment and bitterness I felt after leaving my job at Fancy Southern Liberal Arts College. But experiences like the one I had last week reminded me how much I still love (parts of) my field as well as speaking publicly about the 21st-century relevance of the ancient world. In short, I continue to redefine my own success as an educator and a scholar of classical antiquity. My life is too short to be measured in citations of my work by other scholars. I measure it now in the teenagers who say “that’s so cool!” in a history lesson or the adults who tell me “I never knew that” or who help make other connections between the ancient past and today.

This post was originally “published” in a private forum on Facebook. I’m keeping in some of the blue language, as that is a crucial element of my authentic voice. #sorrynotsorry


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Portrait of Augustus in Boston

The MFA Augustus, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, inv. no. 99.344, H. L. Pierce Fund. Photograph © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I’ve been working on this project since I was a graduate student! Other research distractions (like finishing my dissertation in 2005), teaching work, and delays in laboratory tests on this piece slowed down the final publication of the article. Finding the right venue for publication was also difficult. I sent it to a major archaeology journal, who said the project was too art historical. When I sent it to a major art history journal, they said it was too archaeological! I’m so glad this project found a home at the Journal of the History of Collections. The editors were very helpful and patient with me; the work on their side went very quickly, yet meticulously. This is the second article I’ve published in an Oxford University Press journal and both experiences have been excellent.

I wish I could have found a way to quote the late, great Miranda Marvin in the article. When I was first working on this project, I made my way from Kenmore Square out to Wellesley, meeting her for the first time, to talk about this head, to see if she had that “blink” reaction to it, that it could be fake. I brought with me the slick MFA headshots of Augustus, which I laid out on her desk. She glanced at them, then slid them back across the table to me and said very seriously “Anything with a nose is suspect.”

Indeed the state of preservation was a major element in my making a case for this piece not being ancient. The article also tackles the provenance of the piece, its style, and technical aspects. And although laboratory tests were carried out on the head by the Museum of Fine Arts, they proved inconclusive.

Read the article here at the Journal of the History of Collections. It will be in the print version of the journal soon.

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Papyrologist (and friend) Roberta Mazza has done a tremendous job at her blog of tracking some of the latest news in the extraction of textual papyri, the market for them, and who collects them and why.

In reading her latest post on the Wyman Fragment, I was particularly interested in her points about the factors which influence the prices of papyrus fragments. Naturally the content of the papyrus itself can drive up the value–we can presume the new and controversial Sappho fragments would be insured for more than just your average ancient Egyptian warehouse inventory. Having a clear and legal provenance can increase the economic value of any artifact, not just a papyrus fragment, as both individual collectors and institutions are (slowly) becoming more wary of looted or otherwise “sketchy” pieces. In other words, conscientious collectors will pay a premium to avoid legal action in the future. Sheer competition among buyers influence the cost of any commodity–be it ancient texts or modern real estate. The rarity or non-renewable-resource status of antiquities also drives up price.

One thing that struck me about Mazza’s analysis is that the value of papyri as “collectibles” today is sometimes determined by the same criteria which made objects collectible in antiquity. Here are some examples from the Roman world:

Provenance: While in modern antiquities collecting, provenance is part of the determination of legal/illicit status (with higher prices for licit pieces), in the ancient world, provenance referred to the ownership history, with objects being more valuable if they had passed through the hands of someone important.
Example: Martial Ep. IX.43 tells us of the Hercules Epitrapezios, once owned by both Alexander the Great and Hannibal before it came into Vindex’s collection. While Statius (Silvae IV.6) seems to like the little statuette on its artistic merits, its ownership history was the big draw.ewrq

Name brands: Like Louis Vuitton handbags or Hummel figurines, sometimes a well-known brand is all an object needs to make it valuable (regardless of formal characteristics in some cases). A fragment of Sappho is more valuable than an entire poem written on papyrus by a nobody.
Example: Juvenal Satire 8.100-104 gives us a nice list of the collectible brands of his day, including great Greek masters like Parrhasius, Myron, and Phidias, as well as Coan silk. Anything “Greek” in nature was probably collectible, even if it couldn’t be associated with a famous name. The acclaim of Tyrian purple is well-known and dates to Homer and likely earlier. Corinthian bronze is a famous “brand” of ancient metalwork, known among connoisseurs and poseurs alike. You can contrast Pliny the Younger’s knowledge of it in Ep. III.6 with Trimalchio’s absurd explanation of his Corinthian bronze at Satyricon 50: “Yeah, I get my bronze from a guy down the way named Corinthus.”

Mirabilia: This is something of a combination of name brand, provenance, and natural history. In some cases a single object could “triple-down” on its valuable features.
Example: Pausanias 8, 46 tells us of the tusks of the Calydonian Boar brought from Tegea to Rome by Augustus as war booty after the defeat of Mark Anthony. We presume the tusks were big and impressive to match their illustrious and mythological provenance. Aemilius Scaurus displayed a gigantic skeleton (of a whale?), which was said to be the sea monster which menaced Andromeda.

While status as mirabilia doesn’t necessarily influence the economic value of papyri today, provenance and name brand certainly do. And in the modern market for antiquities, we can see clearly these factors at work in auction prices. For example, the connection to Lorenzo the Magnificent must have been in part responsible for the $3.4-million hammer price for this fragmentary group of satyrs fighting snakes. The piece’s ancient Roman “brand,” as well as its allusion to a Laocoon-like prototype certainly drove up the value as well.


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Last Saturday I had the pleasure of going to a screening of Art and Craft at the Indie Memphis film festival. Art and Craft tells the story of art forger Mark Landis, who for at least two decades faked paintings and drawings and donated them to scores of museums and other collections. The film shows Landis at work: selecting frames, gathering pigments and brushes, aging canvases, and so forth. We also see Landis meeting with museum professionals, hear the yarns he spins about the origins of his fakes. His fraud having been slowly exposed over the course of the past seven years or so, Landis apparently no longer donates his works as originals, yet is still producing paintings and drawings. Although his dealings have been investigated by the FBI Art Crime unit, Landis has technically not broken any laws. (More on this below.)

I didn’t take any notes during the film and I have only seen it once. So while I have read a bit on Landis, what I write here is mostly an immediate impression of what I saw in Art and Craft. There are other threads in this story I will follow at a later date.

Art and CraftDirector Sam Cullman (center) and Mark Landis (right) at the November 1 2014 screening of Art and Craft in Memphis, TN

Landis’ story is particularly compelling for me because it differs from the familiar narrative of other art forgers: the disgruntled artist who can’t achieve success on the merits of his/her own original work turns to forgery to exact revenge on a corrupt and ignorant art market. The benefit of forgery is therefore at least twofold: there are the financial gains to be had, as well as a satisfaction in showing up the art professionals whose lack of connoisseurial eye and taste are demonstrated by the ease with which they are duped by the forger. There are many variations on this theme, but it is compelling how often the story of “failed artist turns to forgery” repeats itself.

Yet Landis apparently never attempted a career as an artist in his own right. He seems to have taken to copying early on, as a teenager, as just an exercise in hand-eye coordination, with no intent to deceive or to benefit financially through his skill in reproduction. Throughout the film, Landis refers to himself as a philanthropist; his gifts of paintings and drawings are his way of sharing beauty and art with a wider community and therefore any deception is for a greater good. While one could argue he could just as easily give away these works to friends and neighbors, it seems important to Landis that there be a public audience for his gestures of philanthropy and his skill as a painter and draftsman.

So why has Landis aspired so emphatically toward philanthropy? This brings me to some discomfort I felt during the screening of Art and Craft. Mark Landis suffers from a number of mental illnesses. Several scenes show him visiting a mental health clinic where a staff member (somewhat dispassionately) asks him about feelings of self-harm, of harm toward others, about hearing voices, about taking his medications as directed. Another scene shows Landis paging through a clinical report from the Menninger Clinic, where he was admitted at age 17. The report notes he has schizophrenia and suffered from catatonia and other issues during his stay at the clinic. As Landis reads through the report, he mutters with bemused self-deprecation about the various diagnoses. The movie audience chuckled along with him as he marveled at how he manages to function day-to-day, in spite of these rather concerning issues. At this point, I felt the film was somewhat exploitative, showing the forger’s fragile and tormented side as an explanation for his grimy living conditions, his monotone and mumbling affect, his uncomfortable devotion to his deceased mother, and so forth, without telling the audience how to resolve our feelings of pity for the man with our fascination with his artistic skill and his amusement at his methods of ‘philanthropy.’ One scene shows Landis gulping wine, hidden in a bottle of milk of magnesia, as a bit of ‘liquid courage’ before negotiating a donation. Other scenes show him smoking awkwardly to calm his nerves. The drinking and smoking might be more amusing were we not concerned about how alcohol might interact with his prescription medication and how Landis has chosen cigarettes over Xanax for anxiety because he has seen people in old movies smoking to ease nervousness.

Landis’ ‘philanthropy’ is not entirely a factor of his mental illnesses, of course. He notes at several points in the film that he donates these forged works so his mother would be proud of him, that this career began during her lifetime, and it pleased her to see him be recognized for his skill while at the same time making a beneficent gesture to a museum or other collection. That no money exchanged hands for his work made the forgery and deception more palatable, even admirable. Landis points out that after the passing of some years, his mother seemed to be less and less comfortable with the chicanery necessary for these philanthropic gestures (this included false names and even assuming the identity of a priest). He notes that as a child it was often observed he was ‘inclined to mischief.’ With the death of his mother in 2010, Landis seems to have entered into a profound depression, with a concomitant increase in the production of forgeries and donations. Again, watching the ways in which Landis struggles with the memories of both his parents, but particularly his mother, made me feel uncomfortably voyeuristic and concerned for his psychological state. It was something of a freak show.

Another troubling aspect of Art and Craft is not a fault of the film, but a distressing truth of the art world. In addition to following Landis’ methods and life, the film informs us of the cracking of the forgery case by former museum registrar Matt Leininger. Leininger’s blog posts and other resources reveal how he uncovered Landis’ deceptions, so I won’t outline that story here. What is most compelling to me about Leninger’s part in Art and Craft is where his passionate pursuit of Landis has ended (for the moment): with the loss of his position at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and as a pariah in the art world. During a Q&A after the screening of the film here in Memphis, director Sam Cullman noted Leninger has been effectively blackballed by museums and now works for Amazon.com. Leninger’s intellectual integrity motivated him to follow the path of Landis and his Johnny-Appleseed-like trail of forgeries throughout 60-some museums in the United States. But as more collections learned they had been duped, the more vehemently they covered up their failings, swept their Landis paintings under the rug, and urged Leninger to keep quiet. The complex, ardent marriage of art and money means museums often lose sight of their educational charge to inform their audiences of all aspects of the economics and varied values of art, not just the ones that put them in the most favorable or ‘interesting’ light. Leninger is collateral damage in this tension of art, value, and expertise.

I saw the film with an attorney friend of mine and benefited from a short chat we had after the film, regarding the legal ramifications of Mark Landis’ forgeries and donations. Why Landis has not been charged with a crime is only briefly explored in the film, and I am sure others in the audience have been turning over this question in their minds since the screening. It is apparently simple how Landis has avoided legal action: no money is being exchanged for his artworks. Financial gain is at the heart of the definition of fraud, generally speaking, as there must be some ‘harm’ dealt to the victim. Since museums are not paying Landis for his pieces, they suffer no financial loss when the forgeries are revealed. Were Landis to take tax deductions for his charitable donations to museums and collections, there could be grounds for legal action. Yet as my attorney friend pointed out, it’s unlikely Landis even has enough income to have to pay taxes and to benefit from such deductions. I suppose that if Landis’ paintings ended up in commercial galleries there could be additional legal angles to pursue. When forgers like Landis flood the market with their work, it drives down the price of all related work. This could possibly be an avenue for prosecution, if the estate of one of the artists whose work is being faked wanted to press charges, or a gallery owner felt he/she had suffered financial loss because the value of his/her holdings had decreased as a result of ‘competition’ from Landis or other forgers.

It surprises me how few art historians are interested in art forgery as an academic topic, generally speaking. When I saw Art and Craft last weekend, I didn’t recognize any other art faculty or local museum professionals in the audience. Sure, it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but I feel if one values art as a historical document, one should also be concerned with the economics of art, today and in the past. Forgery (as well as theft, of course) has a real effect on the art market and art history, even if we cannot calculate that effect until after the forgery has been detected.

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The sculpture market in late 18th-century Rome was a confluence of a high demand for antiquities (thanks to Grand Tour traffic), the nascent field of art history and connoisseurship within it, talented sculptors who could create works which appealed to both the taste for ancient art and complete, “perfect” statuary, and some techniques in restoration which in retrospect seem at best bizarre and at worst immoral and violent to the historical record.

A single sentence from my current research project, “Reexamining the Authenticity of a Portrait of Augustus in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.”

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