Art history professor looks into the big business of ivory carving forgery

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Hand-carved ivory figures from antiquity are very valuable, both historically and monetarily. When deciding to spend a half-million dollars for one ivory art piece, all parties involved want to make sure it is authentic. From private collectors to Sotheby’s, prospective buyers often call in Penn State’s own fake buster, Anthony Cutler, Evan Pugh Professor of Art History, to determine if the carved ivory is real or a forgery.

According to Cutler, there has been a recent increase in ivory forgeries because of their potential high economic value. “Ivory is the second hardest organic substance and thus extremely difficult to carve intricate details,” explained Cutler. “Plus ivory itself has become rare with hunting of elephants and whales banned in most countries. Many people who are in the business of carving ivory today make very little money for their efforts, except when they sell forgeries.” In the current market where 99 percent of ivory being sold is identifiable as forgery, Cutler’s expertise is in great demand.

Flown around the world to review one-of-a-kind works of ivory, Cutler personally examines each piece to find the minutest discrepancies that would mark the ivory as a fake. Comparing the ivory piece in question to what he knows about the carving methods of its alleged period in history, Cutler can spot details that are not consistent. Finding discrepancies requires an extensive knowledge of the original piece. For example, Figure 1 is the real sixth-century imperial diptych representing empress Ariadne, currently in a museum in Florence, Italy. Figure 2 is a forgery. There are numerous glaring differences between the two, making this forgery easy to spot. Most are not so obvious. The forgers are often skilled artists and can capture even the tiniest detail.

Sometimes the clue to whether the piece is real or false is hidden on the back or sides, where the unique shape and growth patterns of the animal’s tusk are more visible. It is here that the skill and tools of sixth-century carvers will contrast with modern techniques. The forgers may duplicate the front of the work of art perfectly but miss crucial details on the back.

Cutler is recognized as a world authority in Byzantine studies, particularly in the specialized area of carved ivories. When not solving the mysteries of ivory forgeries, he is unraveling the complex cultural exchanges of an interdisciplinary approach including art history and anthropology to decipher the cultural history.

Cutler attributes his extensive awareness of ancient ivory to his many decades in studying forgeries. “An understanding of the means by which a carved ivory statuette, box, or plaque comes into being is normally not considered integral to its aesthetic appreciation or the comprehension of its intellectual content,” Cutler explained. “… Such information not only can elucidate its origins and history, including its occasional reworking, but also can be instrumental in the identification of modern forgeries.”

To learn more about Cutler and his studies of ivory forgeries, check out his article, “Carving, Recarving and Forgery: Working Ivory in the Tenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in West 86th, Vo. 18, No. 2/Fall 2011, at http://www.west86th.bgc.bard.edu/articles/cutler-carving-ivory.html.

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Last Updated September 06, 2013