John F. Berner
Originally Published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, 50th Anniversary issue, Vol. 52, No.4, pg. 56
May I begin by stating that I am not attempting to establish myself as an expert on the subject of American Indian artifacts. My past experiences as Editor-in-Chief of both the Redskin and the 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.
Allow me to explain 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 1940s a tremendous amount of valuable information and 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 drawing 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 Meig County steatite from Tennessee or greenish black steatite found in Virginia and North Carolina. To replicate modern copies of these expensive artifacts, the above-described material is again being quarried. Fresh material also carves easily and takes a nice polish. The “artifakers” sometimes even include a few marks. The final step in manufacturing is a chemical immersion-bath which produces a false patination. Now the product is ready for market and will be offered at a price much lower than current values attributed to the 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 effigies have been discovered. Compared to the number of comparable fakes that exist, chances of finding the real thing must be one out 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 mate- rial. Most Hopewell pipes come from burial association and often feature encrustations and calcium deposits on the surfaces. 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 “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 birdstones. 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 bannerstone. 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 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 recently finished 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 prior 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 employed 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 collectable. Relatively few actual reproductions, except the 7″ to 20″ monstrosities from the Southwest have been on the scene. Most noticeable in past times were reworks. Large blades or knives received added notches simply because notched points brought more revenue for dealers. Broken or damaged flints were repointed and shaped into perfect specimens. As the sheer number of demanding collectors multiplied, more flint artifacts became more nearly 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 the 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 pay 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 the distributor approximately $100. By the time a dealer adds a markup, this piece will be priced somewhere from $750 to $1000 and sold to an unfortunate collector. A Southeastern family operation will have any type projectile made for you in any quantity desired 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 into 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 recently as five years ago? You can’t become an expert on 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 advancing collectors who recently entered the inner sanctum are being taken for a ride. Make no mistake about it. “Artifakes” is big business. Some of the new “experts” are enjoying earnings of six figures a year.
I feel by now you are 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 of your interest, you can help prevent yourself from being victimized. There is a wealth of published material on American Indian artifacts available at public libraries and book sellers. Also, most modern collectors specialize in certain categories of artifacts, because large general collecting is too costly. Get to know those who specialize in areas similar to yours and ask plenty of questions. I’ve had many people ask, “How can you tell if it’s fake?” but I’ve yet to have anyone want to take the time to learn. These are hurried times! Remember this fact, “artifakers” are in business to make a fast buck, no other reason. In order to do so, “artifakers” must take shortcuts by producing their wares quickly in order to profit. Should fakers ever decide to invest in strictly hand operations and allow natural aging for about fifty years in the soil, no expert will be able to tell the difference.
Take time making your future decisions. Examine all possible acquisitions carefully. Ask yourself and qualified associates: Does the item in question appear to be made by hand, or does it have a certain mechanical character? Is the item too perfect? (Ancient man did not possess micrometers or calipers). Does the artifact appear to have been used? (A scant few artifacts were lost prior to some usage). Is the age natural in appearance, or is the artifact merely made to look old. If any of the above questions produces a negative response, forget it!
I have enjoyed the good fortune of being able to examine tens of thousands of artifacts and “artifakes.” Yet, occasionally I view items for which I remain undecided. If you can’t be sure, it is best to pass and say nothing. Once again, we are reminded that we don’t know it all.
May I state in closing that hopefully these personal viewpoints will assist you in furthering your collecting interests. If this information prevents one person from making a costly mistake, it has served its purpose.
“Used by Permission of the Author”
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