Ancient artifacts have picked up the attention of historians and collectors alike. With how limited and priceless they are, people have tried to reproduce them over the years. While some of these copies are used for educational or display purposes, others are sold alongside genuine artifacts on the antiquities market.
These days, the wealth of information on the Internet has made it easier than ever for anyone to create a replica of a piece of art. Whether it is an age-old masterpiece or an artifact created in a more recent era, it can be easy to make a realistic copy of the artwork and pass it off as the original.
The First Copies
The copying of artifacts has been in practice way before our time. In fact, the ancient Romans were prone to copying just about everything from the Greeks that they deemed desirable – whether it was ideologies, philosophy, architecture or art. When the Romans began to conquer Greek cities starting around 211 BC, they plundered works of art from the cities, instead of gold and silver. These exquisite artworks drew huge attention, particularly among the Roman elite. The Romans were so impressed by the art that they wanted some to display in their houses, but there was only one of each artwork. The resulting solution was to set up studios just for the purpose of making copies of Greek artworks to be sold to the wealthy. Although the Romans knew that they were buying a copy of the original, the authenticity of the work was not as much a concern as the desire to own the manifestation of such a concept of art. It was an effective way for artisans to make money from happy buyers without having to settle debates on who would obtain the real item.
One piece of art that was especially sought after was the sculpture called Doryphoros. Originally sculpted in bronze by Polykleitos, the artwork was meant to represent what the sculptor believed to be the “perfect” bodily proportions for a human. It was also one of the earliest examples of the Greek style of contrapposto and classical realism. Doryphoros was copied extensively by the Romans into marble form. The original bronze sculpture has never been found, possibly having been melted down and recast to make weapons, but the multiple marble copies made by the Romans have survived till today and provide us valuable insights into the Greek work of art.
World View on Copying in General
The copying of items to be sold – not just artifacts – has been in practice up till today, where we have costume jewelry, imitation brands and improvised recipes, to name a few. Generally, the copying of designs is frowned upon due to intellectual property rights. We have also seen cases where popular retailers have copied the designs of someone else, without properly crediting them or paying them royalties, and selling them for profit.
It appears that more value is placed on an idea or concept both in the ancient Roman civilization and in our modern times. When an item was recently made, it is the look of the item that people wish to own, and not necessarily the object itself. It is different when the focus comes to objects that have aged for a long time so that their very being holds more value than their outward look.
When it comes to items whose worth ties in closely to their look and their being, such as paintings or visual art, this can be a grey area. As an example, most will be familiar of the rule stating that photography is not allowed in museums. This rule arose because of the flash bulb previously used in cameras, which had the potential to damage paintings. With the advent of digital photography, this no longer became an issue, although the rule remains in some museums today. The museums could simply abolish the rule since it no longer applies to the cameras people use nowadays, but it would not be in their best interests to allow any visitor to take a picture of their exhibitions and share it. This could also lead to the copying and selling of such paintings if a high-quality picture was taken.
What is the Issue with Selling Copied Artifacts?
As mentioned, the issue of selling copied artifacts can be quite different in today’s context. It is not so much about intellectual property, as most ancient artifacts are in the public domain since they were created so long ago and in much different civilizations. Some buyers, similar to the Roman elite, are willing to purchase copies of artifacts for a decent price. Replica artifacts commonly go on markets. Some may be made into more hardy materials or fashioned into merchandise so that people can appreciate the artifacts without having to travel to see the real items. Genuine artifacts tend to be preserved in public places instead of private collections, so selling a copied version to private art collectors may be preferable to making a deal for the real object. It seems that as long as people are aware that the artifact they are buying is only a copy, they may not mind.
Rather, the problem lies in people making copies of artifacts and marketing them as genuine items. With perfectly copied artifacts down to every detail, it can take an experienced specialist to tell the difference. Unfortunately, copied artifacts have been in the market and deceived many who paid a hefty sum for them.
One family infamous for selling forged artifacts was the Riccardi brothers. Together with three of their sons, they were first hired by the Roman art dealer Domenico Fuschini to create copies of ancient pottery. Among the Riccardis’ forged works are a large bronze chariot, the Old Warrior and the Colossal Head. They claimed the artifacts were of ancient Etruscan origin and sold them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their final work, a 202cm tall statue called the Big Warrior, was purchased by the museum for $40,000 in 1918. It was subsequently discovered that the works were in fact forgeries, since the material contained traces of manganese, which the ancient Etruscans could not have used.
In summary, there is value in copying artifacts to sell, as long as the buyer is comfortable in the knowledge that they are buying a copied artifact. It can even be beneficial to copy artifacts for the purpose of selling them to educate people, or for private collectors who do not mind owning a replica. The real issue arises when a copied artifact is attempted to be passed off as a genuine item and sold for a similar price.