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Antiquities Sleuth Has a Fraud Mandate

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; Page C01

Most museums have fakes in their collections. This is a reality to which they don't want to bring attention. Jane MacLaren Walsh, however, loves to turn the material legacy of the past over and over in her strong hands. As an art detective, it's both her research and her reverie. She fingers a tube of jade as narrow as a soda straw and wonders about its maker, the artist who worked some 3,500 years ago and thought to carve a snake like the one crawling near the fire.

Then she thinks of the other craftsmen who, roughly 200 years ago, created forgeries of such antiquities so convincing that today they nestle in the world's finest museums.


Jane MacLaren Walsh uses a flint to file lines in a piece of jade, demonstrating how most authentic artifacts have less-than-perfect markings on them. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

Walsh sits in a sunny office at the National Museum of Natural History and wonders if the next wonderful piece of allegedly pre-Columbian art that comes through the door will be real or a fake. Beneath her short wave of soft silver hair is pale skin reddened by the sun of Mexico, where she has just been examining the bounty from a dig.

An anthropologist with the Smithsonian for 35 years, Walsh finds a certain joy in being stumped and a delicious satisfaction in spotting a forgery.

It's not easy to find objects that are certifiably genuine to judge others against. But Walsh and sleuths in Britain and Mexico have three pre-Columbian collections that they regard as beyond reproach: The Museo del Templo Mayor in Mexico City has the results of an accidental discovery in the 1970s of an ancient Aztec temple. The artifacts represent the last period of pre-Columbian art, from about A.D. 700-1500. The British Museum has a collection of Mayan jades that date from A.D. 100-900. And the Smithsonian has holdings from an Olmec site at La Venta, Mexico, where anthropologist Matthew Williams Stirling, working from 1938-1946, found a cache dated from 900 to 200 B.C.

"They were selected because they are documented. They came from controlled scientific excavations," says Walsh. "We know for certain that they are authentic, and because of the cultures and sites, we know what time periods they come from."

Walsh is creating a computerized reference base, meant to guide those trying to spot fraudulent antiquities. After studying the holes and markings on genuine items in the three museums, she examines suspect artifacts with advanced scanners for the telltale marks of relatively modern equipment.

"In excavations you don't find the tools because [the figures] were offerings to the gods," Walsh says. The workshop where they were made was somewhere else. So the indoor anthropologist has to ask hundreds of questions as she turns over an object. "What did they use to make that hole?" she says, looking at an Olmec ear ornament, dated from 900 to 400 B.C. Could the ancient craftsmen have used bamboo? Or cactus thorns or small bones or flint or quartz?

What complicates the search for authenticity is that some of the forgeries are also antiques.

"Fakes have been made, I think, since early in the 1800s. Some people think they begin even earlier. After the wars of independence starting in 1810, all of Mexico was opened up to travelers from Europe and America," she explains. "So when lots of travelers came in, they were fascinated by the presence of ruins and wanted to take home souvenirs. They created a demand, and as usual, somebody else created a supply."

Although Walsh was born in the Bronx, her interest in Mesoamerican archaeology and history was kindled when her father's foreign service career took the family to Mexico. In high school, she often went to the museum that had been made out of the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. There she fell in love with its paintings, folk art and antiquities. Even after her family moved on, she stayed to earn her degrees from the University of the Americas in Mexico City. Later she got a PhD from Catholic University in Washington.

She focused on the pre-Columbian world. "The beauty of the collections is that they are like libraries, they tell you so much," says Walsh. And at Natural History, which has the largest scientific staff of any museum in the world, the collections yielded plenty of authentic examples that she could use to debunk frauds.

She uses all sorts of equipment in her detective work. An up-to-the-minute Apple computer is on one side of her office, where she can manipulate high-resolution images. Many of these come from the museum's labs, which are equipped with CT scanners, X-ray machines and scanning electron microscopes. But advanced technology goes only so far: She has also created tools using materials available to ancient artisans.

Walsh picks up a piece of obsidian, shiny and sharp, and shows how it might have been used. "This volcanic glass is the fifth hardest mineral there is," she says. A fake, by contrast, often shows evidence of a hard metal tool. "With modern tools, you get these regular, clean lines, very sharp, very narrow. If you see impressions left by a tool that didn't exist" at the time, she says, "you know it is a fake." A high polish may also signal the use of modern tools.


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