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Artifact or Artifake?

How do you know if your Indian artifact or arrowhead is real?

Pg.186,Vol.31, No.4 ,1984, “Central States Archaeological Journal”

My past experiences as Editor-in­chief of both the Redskin and Artifacts magazines provided an excellent opportunity to personally examine thousands of genuine, ancient artifacts in private and muse­um collections. I also examined thou­sands of reproductions.

Let explained the newly coined word “artifake”. This is my terminol­ogy for the current wave of incredible reproductions. Compared to most old fraudulent reproductions made during the past one hundred and fifty years, today’s “artifakes” are difficult to detect. Old time fakes, antique by modern standards often were absurdi­ties because the fakers relied on pic­tures in books or pen and ink draw­ings that sometimes were merely fig­ments of the artist’s imagination.

Today’s new wave of serious repro­ductionists are a different breed. Since the 1940’s, a tremendous amount of valuable information & documentation has been published on American Indian artifacts. These valuable resources have provided the inspiration for many modern “artifakes”. The clever fraud makers invest in genuine artifacts to copy and duplicate.

Some are known to have visited leading museums, producing three-dimensional drawings and blueprints of choice specimens. Then the mas­ters of deceit seek out fresh raw mat­erial to use when making these pre­cise “artifakes”. Let me share a few examples. “Great” pipes of the ancient Southern cultures were made with brownish green Meigs county steatite from Tennessee or blackish green steatite found in Virginia and North Carolina. To replicate modern copies of these expensive artifacts, the described material is again being quarried. Fresh material carves easily and takes a nice polish. The “artifak­ers” sometimes include a few damage marks. The final step in manufactur­ing is chemical immersion-bath which produces a false patination. Now the product is ready for market and will be offered at a price slightly lower than current values attributed to a genuine article. The price and availability makes the “artifake” very appealing to bargain hunters and unsuspecting novices.

Advancing collectors have always been attracted to pipes and consider them very desirable. Perhaps the most famous replication is the Hopewell Effigy pipe. It is a fact that only sev­eral hundred genuine Hopewell effigy types have ever been discovered. Compared to the number of compara­ble fakes that exist, chances of find­ing the real thing must be one of five hundred! Until about ten years ago, these reproductions were easy to spot, because the fakers made too many mistakes. The new wave of super fakes are exact duplicates and are made of the proper raw material. Most Hopewell pipes come from a burial asso­ciation and often feature encrusta­tions and calcium deposits on the sur­face. Modern ingenuity has overcome the problem. Newly made “artifakes” are taken to a crematorium and cal­cined with human remains. The fact that some of the modern replicas may crack or explode when subjected to such intense heat poses no problem. Broken fakes are sold as “ceremoni­ally killed” artifacts at slightly reduced prices.

Pipes are not alone in the new wave of reproductions. Fifty years ago, the market was flooded with fake bird-stones. Most are obviously incorrect. Others were good enough to pass and still grace cabinets of major collec­tions. Thirty years ago, some super bannerstones migrated from upper Illinois. Since the supers were too good to sell, why not try the alternate approach. Enter the age of the “ugly bannerstones”. Covered with ferric oxide and artificially weathered to look old, these sold best, and almost any artifact meeting will feature a few of these monstrosities. You’ll often notice everyone looking in the hole to determine authenticity. What good is looking at the hole when the materi­al and shape is wrong?

Until recent times, pendants and gorgets were never reproduced in quantity. Today, choice artifacts may bring $500 or more, which gives the fakers plenty of good reasons for “art­ifaking.” Don’t overlook the reworks and recent finished examples fresh off the buffer!

No artifact escapes reproduction. Highly desirable shell masks and gor­gets are acid etched from patterns by using the photo resist method. The non-design area is protected from etching by a wax covering, Then an application of decaying animal flesh will add the final touch to suggest burial association. Believe me, it’s quite convincing!

Discoidals are a current modern favorite of the reproductionist. Attractively patterned granites, quartzites, etc. are lathed by compe­tent stone workers. After shaping, the product is judiciously pecked in a few spots and hand polished to provide a subtle “old time” finish. Lowly celts are a prime target with any suitable river pebble being ground on lapi­darist green wheels, polished with carborundum paper, then buried in manure piles to acquire a well-aged appearance. Grooved stone axes could be purchased for $50 to $100 until recently. Today, choice speci­mens are priced from $250 to $1000 and more. “Artifakers” have noticed the trend and plenty of well-made duplicates are now available. Miniature jack-hammers are used to work the stone to the desired shape, then the form is sand-blasted to give a nice weathered look. Central Ohio has become a distribution center for some of the aforementioned “arti­fakes”.

I have purposely left my comments about flint artifakes until last. It has been said that for every single orna­ment, bannerstone, birdstone, pipe, axe or celt ever found, more than 10,000 flint projectiles have been dis­covered. Yet, flint artifacts are the most popular form of ancient American Indian collectible. Relatively few actual reproductions, except the 7″ to 20″ monsters that have shown up on the scene, Most noticeable in the past time were reworks. Large blades or knives received added notches simply because notched points brought more revenue from dealers. Broken or damaged points were repointed and shaped into per­fect specimens. As the sheer number of demanding collectors multiplied, more flint artifacts became perfect.

Enter the age of the professional flint knapper. Some of these people are better at plying their trade than were the ancient flint knappers. Until recently, size was the only major problem. Today, quality raw flint is quarried for such purposes, and with years of experience, modern knappers can turn out anything your heart desires. You can virtually choose the style of point and material of your preference, including Indiana and Kentucky hornstones, Missouri color, Illinois white, Arkansas novaculite, and multicolor Flint Ridge chal­cedony. In fact, 20″ plus “Duck River” swords of Dover tan are also readily available if you are willing to share the price. Let me share a typical example of costs. A fine quality St.Charles/Dovetail can be repro­duced in a matter of 30 to 60 minutes by a skilled knapper. For 4″ to 5″ specimens, the maker will charge a dealer approximately $100. By the time the dealer adds a markup, this piece will be priced somewhere from $750 to $1000 and sold to an unfortu­nate collector. A well known family operation will have any type projectile made for you in any quantity for about one third of the price nor­mally charged for ancient and genuine artifacts. The problem of “artifakes” is not limited to spurious dealers and unsuspecting collectors. Many per­sons have entered the business of buy­ing, selling and trading American Indian artifacts within the last three or four years. The reason is profit and the growing demand by the collector community. Think to yourself, how few of these highly visible people were involved in serious collecting as recent as five years ago? You can’t become an expert in anything, whether it be coins, stamps, firearms or antiques in twenty-four months! Consequently, the new breed of “high rollers” are unwittingly being consid­ered as today’s experts. And the advanced collectors who recently entered the inner sanctum are being taken for a ride. Make no mistake about it, “Artifakes” are big business. Some of the new experts are enjoying earnings of six figures a year.

I feel by now you’re wondering how you can prevent yourself from falling victim to this profitable scheme? I don’t have all the answers but let me offer some valid suggestions. Knowledge is power! By becoming more informed on the subject through good books and published material. I have enjoyed the good fortune of examining tens of thousands of arti­facts and “artifakes”. Occasionally, I view items for which I remain unde­cided. If I can help one person from being wronged by a mistake, this has served its purpose. Thank you.

“Used by Permission of the Author” and originally published in American Indian Artifacts; Genuine or

Reproduction by Col. John F. Berner. Copyright © 2000 by American Antiquities, Inc.