In Brief

Shocking Study of 2,000 Objects in SF’s Mexican Museum Finds 1,917 Are Fake [UPDATED]

The chair of the museum’s board of directors fears that as much as half of its 16,500-object collection could turn out to be inauthentic.

A mural at the future site of the Mexican Museum in downtown San Francisco (photo by torbakhopper/Flickr)
A mural at the future site of the Mexican Museum in downtown San Francisco (photo by torbakhopper/Flickr)

An authenticity report commissioned by San Francisco’s Mexican Museum found that 1,917 of the 2,000 pre-Hispanic artifacts from its permanent collection examined are either forgeries or more recent decorative objects, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “I was shocked,” Andrew Kluger, the chair of the museum’s board of trustees, told Mission Local, which broke the news.

The report was carried out by Eduardo Pérez de Heredia Puente from the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City and submitted to the Mexican Museum board late last month. Just 83 of the 2,000 artifacts, all of which were previously believed to date from the pre-Hispanic era, were said to be of museum quality. Among the rest, the report found “a good number of modern workshop ceramics, imitating the archaeological ones … from bad to good copies, including some good and high-end forgeries,” according to Mission Local.

This is just the first authenticity report on the Mexican Museum’s holdings, with several more to follow, as its entire collection of over 16,000 objects will be evaluated. The $80,000 institution-wide authenticity evaluation project was a mandatory requirement of the Mexican Museum becoming an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, a status it achieved in 2012. The more than 200 institutions in the Smithsonian’s Affiliations program can borrow and loan works among themselves more freely by virtue of the partnership.

Kluger estimates that up to half of the museum’s permanent collection — which includes over 5,000 folk art pieces, more than 1,500 objects from the colonial era, some 2,500 20th-century works from Mexico and Latin America, and over 1,000 works of Chicano art — could be deemed inauthentic by the end of the review process. Nevertheless, he has high hopes for the authenticity ratios of those other collections. “Most of it is good,” he assured the Chronicle, “and everything in the Latino art and Chicano art collection appears to be authentic.”

Kluger blamed the poor testing of the pre-Hispanic collection in part on the objects’ provenance. All of them were donated to the museum, by a total of over 50 donors, since the institution’s inception in 1975. “Basically the museum was not functioning as an international museum,” he told Mission Local. “It was accepting everything.” Since becoming a Smithsonian affiliate, it has changed tacks. “Recently we have turned away pieces,” Kluger told the Chronicle.

The Mexican Museum, which does not currently have a director, has long been operating out of a temporary space at Fort Mason. But it is due to move into a permanent space downtown that will span a new high-rise condo building and the historic Aronson Building next-door. Its planned opening in its new home, steps from SFMOMA, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is scheduled for the spring of 2019.

Update, 7/14, 11:05 a.m.: At a press conference on Thursday, museum officials sought to clarify reports, saying the study has been misinterpreted. As KQED reported, the dozens of objects deemed authentic were apparently just the ones that had been completely approved for display, while the remainder will undergo further inspection.

“Until we finish this whole study by the professor, we won’t know what pieces are questionable,” museum chairman Andrew Kluger said. “We’re not throwing this stuff away.”

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