Own a Piece of the (Very Recent) Past

Erin L. Thompson

A Roman mosaic of Aphrodite. Allegedly.

Once, after a lovely evening of drinks and dinner, my date invited me back to his apartment to see the Greek vases he had inherited from his godparents. I’m an art historian who studies the criminal underside of the antiquities market. As he rooted around in his cupboards, I tried to think of the most tactful way to tell him that the vases, bought without any information about their source, had probably been looted from an archaeological site. He finally unearthed them from an old Tupperware box above his refrigerator. The objects he plunked down in front of me had clearly not been looted. ‘Oh, but these are all fakes!’ I blurted out with relief. Way to ruin a date.

The Romans faked Greek art. The Grand Tourists snapped up fake ancient Roman masterpieces, with a preference for the exaggeratedly erotic. And the internet has democratised the market for fakes. Now, anyone with a credit card can buy artefacts pretending to be Neolithic hand axes, Hellenistic jewellery, Roman armour or Chinese tomb figurines. The strangest thing I’ve seen was an online storefront flogging ‘ancient Egyptian body parts’. One of these bits, marked at only $15,000, was an erect penis. If it’s genuine, I must fundamentally misunderstand the nature of either mummification or erections, or both.

If you would like to practice your skill at fake-spotting, you could start with the sale currently being conducted online by TimeLine Auctions Limited. Of course, it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty that any of the thousands of lots are not genuine antiquities merely by looking at them. But it’s also impossible to tell if they are in fact genuine, or worth the hundreds or thousands of pounds of their estimates, without extensive scientific testing or research into their provenances.

The lack of certainty has not stopped people from bidding on a mosaic that shows a squash-faced Aphrodite flanked by a dog with five legs and an attendant whose head is wrapped up in a handkerchief as if he has toothache. It appears, from the current bid listings, that someone is willing to spend £12,500 on this object, despite its Greek inscriptions featuring a letter (C) that is not in the Greek alphabet. Aphrodite’s crotch also features a couple of extra lines, in a sort of pinwheel arrangement, as if the artist waited until the last moment before settling on what sort of genitals to give her.

The sale listing contains information that might tempt either a naive or an unscrupulous buyer. The mosaic is described as Roman Cypriot, from a collection formed ‘in the late 1960s to 1980s’, i.e. during the looting of Cyprus’s archaeological sites and collections made possible by the Turkish military invasion. The mosaic is also ‘accompanied by an academic report’, though the listing neither describes the contents of the report nor makes clear that its author is not an archaeologist but a Roman military historian.

Most reassuring, the sale listing contains a reference to an article published by the Warsaw Institute of Archaeology. The unwary, or those without a copy of the Studia memoriae professoris Thomae Mikocki dicata to hand, might imagine that the mosaic on the auction block was included in this academic publication. But my colleague Paul Barford tracked down Marek Olszewski, the author of the article, who told him not only that the Aphrodite mosaic is not in the article, but that it’s a fake based on a reversed photograph of a Roman mosaic now in the Hatay Archaeology Museum in Antakya, Turkey. The original has Dionysus as its central figure; the imperfect translation of his testicles into the forged Aphrodite’s labia explains the mosaic’s curious appearance.

We can’t be as certain of the inauthenticity of other lots in the auction, but it’s unlikely that so many ancient earrings would have survived in matched pairs, with their delicate loops intact and ready to wear – there are more than thirty pairs in this auction. If you’re selling fake ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals, you should perhaps not put two so obviously carved by the same hand side by side in your sales listings. If you’re flogging a set of second millennium BCE ‘Babylonian’ duck-shaped weights, maybe don’t offer a choice of colours: jewel tones, pastels or classic black. And poking a lump of clay with a pointy stick doesn’t turn it into a ‘Western Asiatic Early Dynastic Sexagesimal Counting Tablet, 3000-2500 BC.’

TimeLine Auctions has covered itself against those who, like me, would cast aspersions on their goods. Despite the exact dates and descriptions on each sales listing, their terms and conditions note that they ‘do not make or give any guarantee, warranty or representation or undertake any duty of care in relation to the description, illustrations or photographs of any Lot, including … provenance [and] authenticity’. They make an exception for cases of ‘deliberate forgery’: if you submit not one but two reports from experts holding that the artefact is a fake, you can get your money back. But only if you haven’t damaged the item by any form of destructive testing – such as carbon dating, which requires removing a small sample. Oh, and you only have two weeks to ask for your refund.

Fakes are funny – but they are also harmful. They encourage potential looters and collectors to think that major pieces are still out there to be found, and so lead to ongoing looting. They also impede efforts to fight the trade in looted antiquities. And they influence the public idea of what types of antiquity are worth protecting against looting, distracting from the protection of unglamorous but information-rich genuine ancient artefacts. So, don’t buy antiquities online. Instead, why not go for the much cheaper option of buying a Roman mosaic kit and making your own. I promise not to make fun of you at all.


  • 17 April 2020 at 8:02pm
    Sean Greenhalgh says:
    It's an obvious fake but there's nothing wrong with the C. It is a lunate sigma, standard in mosaic inscriptions. A little knowledge ic a dangerouc thing...

    • 18 April 2020 at 5:20pm
      Erin Thompson says: @ Sean Greenhalgh
      Well, I'll be! I thought that was only common in later mosaics, but you're right. Thanks for the correction (and from a man who would know!)