On April 13, 2019, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in Iowa was set to open a temporary exhibition titled Written in Stone: The Rosetta Stone Exhibit. Traveling from the Origins Museum Institute in El Paso, Texas, the show was slated to run at the Presidential Library through October, featuring an “exact replica” made from a cast of the original Rosetta Stone alongside other rare and authentic objects from the ancient “Near East.” The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that the exhibition was to feature a “timeline of authentic artifacts” including “some of the oldest idols and sacred representations of deities ever found.” Previewing the exhibition on April 8, however, I noticed that something was off. The imagery carved onto the stamp and cylinder seals was strange, the dates questionable, sizes incongruent, but most notably, all the seals on display seemed to be carved by the same hand despite allegedly being created in different periods.
Later that night, I found out that the “authentic artifacts” I had seen that afternoon in glass display cases were also available for purchase online at Sadigh Gallery in New York City. Together with University of Iowa Art History Associate Professor Björn Anderson, we concluded that most (if not all) the objects included in the exhibition were neither rare nor authentic, but instead modern-day forgeries. The exhibition was canceled three days before its opening.
The works were on loan from the Origins Museum whose collector and founder, Marty Martin, purchased them from Sadigh Gallery. As Martin describes in a recent podcast, he found Sadigh online and while scrolling through the many categories of objects for sale, he (unsurprisingly) discovered “just what [he] was looking for.” Martin purchased over 100 pieces that were assured “authentic”; each came with a certificate of authenticity. Sadigh provided false documentation that duped Martin. The Sadigh Gallery “Certificate of Authenticity” is almost laughable in its quality, but perhaps its brazen simplicity should prompt us to ask what makes for a satisfactory provenance.
Sadigh Gallery was raided by police in 2021. Investigators discovered a “functional fabrication studio” behind the storefront, complete with a haphazard assembly line that transformed modern “replicas into ‘ancient’ artifacts.” When seen individually, a Sadigh fake might be able to perform its trick, but with so many together as they were at the Hoover, they gave themselves away. To my eye, the presence of a visible hand at work in the carving of all the seals from different periods indicated a shared workshop origin; a modern, not ancient one.
The Hoover incident exists in a larger, problematic institutional framework that does not adequately value provenance, a history of ownership, or archaeological origin.
Last month, March 2023, investigations revealed the dubious origins of over 1,000 objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, which attests to the fact that the issue is widespread. These reports demonstrate the close connection between conflict zones, looting, and contemporary collecting practices and standards. As Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, asked: “If The Met is letting all of these things fall through the cracks, what hope do we have for the rest of the art market?”
Lack of provenance is troubling in the case of antiquities from the Middle East because of the rampant looting that occurred during and after the US occupation of Iraq, which led directly to increased demand for these objects, as has long been denounced by artists, activists, and experts. As art historian Zainab Bahrani and Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz have argued, the West fetishizes the archaeological heritage of the East while showing utter disregard for the people living in these regions today. In a 2021 lecture, Rakowitz discusses the aims of his ongoing project, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist. Recreating objects looted, excavated, and displaced, these “reappearances” push viewers to see the links between people, places, and objects in a more meaningful manner. His work highlights the “voracious” appetite the Western art market has for Middle Eastern antiquities. An open secret, it is complicit in looting, implicating associated collectors and cultural institutions in the same unethical act. And the vast disconnect between the exhibition space and the world outside of it enables and encourages that.
The Hoover was enthusiastic about its exhibition and was eager to celebrate knowledge about the past by creating a special experience for museum visitors. But an exhibition unmoored from the sources and stories of these objects erases questions that might otherwise arise: What construction of the past is being celebrated? What kind of history is written when objects missing recorded archaeological find-spots are viewed in this ungrounded manner? How can any exhibition label provide enough context for ancient objects whose origins have either been obfuscated or gone uninvestigated?
When objects enter a museum, there is an unspoken assumption that someone has done due diligence to ensure that an object has been obtained legally and ethically. But the paperwork, where it exists, can be easily falsified. Recent returns of ancient, authentic objects looted (either in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq or the Gulf War) at Emory University, Cornell University, the Museum of the Bible, and amongst private collectors, all show that the issue is flagrant, ongoing, and unresolved — that a larger shift in the market and collecting practices is necessary. While some suggest that such a change is already in motion, these arguments rely too heavily on an all-too-often fictive separation between legitimate and illegitimate market spaces. For example, in the latest case at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, a sphinx furniture fitting was purchased by the university’s Carlos Museum based upon false documentation stating that it entered the US in 1969. Emory was duped by “what appeared to be legitimate provenance documentation.” As one FBI agent described, “We realize there was no ill intent on behalf of Emory University.”
Fakes fill in when there is an established market demand for authentic antiquities because supply is limited. While the object in Emory’s collection was stolen during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the lack of provenance closes the gap between an object looted and an object forged. Both create a market without transparency. In some cases, fakes are sold at a more affordable price, and the lack of meaningful paperwork can be overlooked by a zealous collector’s desire to have an encounter with the ancient world, however generalized and imaginative such a world might be. This was certainly the case for the fake objects on display at the Hoover. The fact that the Hoover is one of 15 presidential libraries run by the United States Federal Government and no one questioned their right to display the unprovenanced history of the Middle East is problematic, especially since at the time of the exhibition there were US troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq (where some 2,500 troops remain today). Written in Stone came with explanatory museum labels for display and a catalogue, which was only intended for use by museum staff. Accompanied by these contrived materials, the exhibition performed a nonchalant display of colonial power. The museum relied upon a disconnect that distances the audience from conflicts abroad. I was in my first year of Ph.D. coursework at the University of Iowa when I spotted fakes at the Hoover. I felt insecure, and although I was right, the authority of the museum display case nevertheless held sway over me. But, I was able to connect the objects to the Sadigh Gallery after only a few minutes of searching online.
It is important to remember that every time we engage in the act of reconstructing the past, no matter how big or small the effort, we bear our cultural baggage — political, historical, and ethical. These objects take on new narratives when they are presented without provenance, eliding the critical distance between the real and fake, subject and object, past and present, history and projection.