Wednesday, October 16, 2013




Prior to the opening of the 2013 Parcours des Mondes tribal art fair in Paris, it appeared a major controversy was brewing behind the scenes.  Word was quickly spreading that a wood sculpture from Borneo Island offered by an important gallery as their key piece during the fair, was a forgery.

The gallery had advertised the sculpture in the latest issue of Tribal Magazine and I have to admit I was initially puzzled by the object.  Frankly, the single image selected for the ad, a partial front view, was difficult to read and emphasized what turned out to be the figure’s oddest feature.  However, I saw nothing obvious that made me suspect there was a problem with the sculpture.

Knowing my interest in archaic Borneo art, I was contacted by several colleagues asking me what I thought of the piece.  It was clear that a few of these enquiries were layered with suspicion.  Based on the ad image I was not yet comfortable making an evaluation and decided to wait until I had a chance to see the piece in person.  I have long advocated that professional dealers should put forth an opinion on authenticity only if they can articulate their reasons with verifiable observations. 

My curiosity piqued; I made a point of visiting this gallery as soon as possible on opening day.  The sculpture was isolated in a downstairs space, standing alone against the back wall, bathed in low light.  The gallery had produced a booklet (for sale) containing detailed descriptions of the object, scientific reports, and additional images.  Several pages of scientific data from this booklet were enlarged and displayed along the walls leading back to the sculpture. 

I examined the piece carefully for more than an hour and read through the information posted on the walls (I did return to the gallery several times during the Parcours to recheck details).  The sculpture has the distinct erosion pattern, with softly worn surface, that I have always associated with very old hardwood objects recovered from rivers in Borneo.  These pieces are exposed to decades, perhaps centuries, of muddy, gritty water running back and forth over the surface.  This process slowly grinds out grooves and channels in the long vertical grains of the wood (if the sculpture is viewed standing up).  Erosion patterns are typically found above and below the sections carved in high relief as the gritty water runs in both directions.  In contrast, outdoor sculptures tend to have wear and erosion patterns working downwards from the exposed horizontal areas.

Additionally, hardwood sculptures that remain outdoors for long periods of time are subject to alternating degrees of sunlight and shadow, pounding rains, and biological interactions that allow for a wider range of surface variations such as uneven lichen growth and wood color.  While “river” pieces lying under murky water or buried in mud are hidden from these interactions.  As seen on this sculpture, these surfaces tend towards a consistent grayish color.


The scientific analysis is quite extensive, using all of the most up-to-date methods available for examining a tribal art object.  If still available, I recommend reading the entire report as it sets a new “gold standard” for authentication.  However, I will limit my comments to the important highlights. 

The wood was sampled for carbon 14 testing and sent to three different labs.  The results gave a range from the 15th to 17th centuries, with a lean towards the earlier date.  The type of wood was identified as a specific type of hardwood (Shorea) found on Borneo Island as well as the location on the tree (the top most section).  The surface and wood structure were examined using high-resolution optical/stereo microscopy, electron microscopy and infrared and x-ray spectrometry.  No evidence of artificial modification including chemical treatment or modern tool use was discovered.  All of the scientific evidence points to a naturally aged ancient object.  In short, this report concluded “that the object has undergone a natural aging phase over time, subsequent to the sculpting act and compatible with its theoretical age, 15th century AD, as well as a second alteration of the wood due to the change of environment during its immersion (in water).”  The scientific data is clear and impossible to dismiss.

Note: If you are in Paris, visit the Quai Branly and take a good look at the large eroded Modang Dayak post on display.  You should easily see identical erosion patterns as found on this sculpture.

With more than 35 years of experience buying, selling, and researching Borneo art, literally looking at thousands of objects, I had to agree this sculpture is authentic.  And, not only authentic but a great work of art, a sculpture with an overwhelming and powerful presence.  The animal like figure towers imposingly over the viewer, sitting a top its post, legs extended to either side as balance.  It is perched comfortably, like an otherworldly predator lurking from above, watching for prey, considering its attack.  The more time I had with the piece, the more I liked it.  As I walked up the stairs, returning to the bright light, I felt as if I had left the reliquary of a cathedral.


Once back on the street, I encountered other colleagues, including a few with a specific interest in  Borneo art.  Naturally, the piece was discussed, as virtually everyone I talked to had already heard the negative buzz.  Some had made time to view the piece directly, others had not.  If I include all of the comments I heard before, during, and after the Parcours, a majority believe it was either a fake or weren’t sure with only a handful willing to state “on the record” that they believed it was authentic.

Interestingly, the “evidence” for forgery was often repeated in lockstep as if read from a script.  I have listed the most used statements below and added my comments in bold type:

“It was carved from an old piece of wood (to fool the c14 tests).”

The wood certainly is old, three carbon tests prove that and it certainly looks old.  But, there is no credible evidence that the piece has been recarved from an older piece of wood.  The scientific analysis was quite clear on this issue and came to the opposite conclusion.

Newly harvested ironwood (and I assume, this hardwood, which appear to be similar to ironwood) is relatively easy to carve, which is one of the practical reasons native artists on Borneo use freshly cut trees for sculptures.   Old, dried out ironwood is very brittle and splinters quite easily, making it much more difficult to achieve the same details and fine finished adze work when sculpting fresh wood.   Assuming the piece is carved correctly, the forger still has to replicate the original surface in the recarved areas or create a completely new surface that duplicates the one expected on the object, in this case, one left in a marine environment for centuries.  Over long periods of time natural forces, such as rain and river mud, gradually form surfaces that under close inspection and high resolution reveal details on the vertical grains and exposed end points that are asymmetrical fluid with subtle and softly worn layers.  I am convinced that any efforts to recreate an ancient natural surface, especially over a large area, would be detectable.  Despite regular claims by some of my colleagues, I have yet to see any proof that it can be done successfully.

“It was carved from the wrong type of wood.”

That statement has no merit.  Carvers on Borneo use a wide variety of hard, medium, and soft woods for sculptures, architectural structures, funerary objects, roof finials, interior details, wood panels, charms, masks, and so on.   Tree species are not uniformly dispersed across the island, requiring Dayak tribes to make due with what is available and practical.  It is true that ironwood (Belian) is the preferred choice with many Dayak tribes for larger scale structures, funerary objects, and figurative posts, but they were not limited to this durable hardwood.  For example, there are numerous ancient funerary sculptures and ossuaries carved from non-hardwood trees, including one medium reddish wood, called Kayu Aru.  There is no reason to believe that a Dayak carver would not use this other accessible hardwood.

The scientific report identifies the species as Shorea, another type of very dense hardwood found on Borneo.  If this particular hardwood was determined not to be native to Borneo, obviously this information would support an argument for forgery, but the fact this species is found on the island reinforces the scientific data for authenticity. 

What I also find interesting is this species of hardwood closely resembles ironwood; enough so that without their scientific analysis, I would have assumed it was one of the four known species of ironwood.  That little bit of new information makes me wonder how many other authentic hardwood sculptures from Borneo might be Shorea instead of Belian wood.

“The wood was treated with acid to create the rough eroded surface.”  Alternately, “it was sand blasted to create the eroded surface” and/or “the surface grooves were carved out with a knife.”

There is absolutely no evidence of this and the scientific analysis came to the opposite conclusion.  I am convinced that acid treatments, sandblasting, and artificially cut out grooves or channels would not create the same naturally eroded and subtlety-layered surfaces you see on authentic ancient hardwood pieces, including this sculpture.  Again, despite regular claims by some of my colleagues, I have yet to see any proof that it can be done successfully.

“The surface was treated to create this grayish color” or alternately “it was placed in a marine environment for several years (see below) to simulate an ancient river surface.”

No artificial color or surface treatment was detected by the scientific analysis.  The study detected obvious evidence of emersion in a marine environment that would likely take a considerable amount of time to achieve.  There is no evidence that placing a newly carved piece of hard wood into a river in an attempt to duplicate centuries of naturally layered patina could be accomplished in a much shorter period of time. 

“This process was completed over 20 years.”

Okay, this one actually made me laugh out loud.  20 years, really?  I mean no offense to my Indonesian friends, but is extremely unlikely that anyone making reproductions of any kind in Indonesia is going to have the patience or foresight to have a 20-year plan to create a master fake!  At best, they might carve a new statue and toss it in the jungle or leave it outside until they get a superficially acceptable surface that could pass muster with inexperienced buyers. 

And lets go back 20 years (more like 25 to 30 years if you add in the 5 to 10 years since this piece is alleged to have left Indonesia).  At that time there were plenty of authentic Borneo objects coming out of the field.  No market gap yet existed that needed filling with quality fakes.  There was no need to waste time and energy manufacturing complicated fakes, especially large-scale objects like this one.  There was no financial motivation to plan that far into the future. 

More to the point, in the late 80s to early 90s the use of carbon 14 tests for dating tribal artifacts was unknown in the Indonesian tribal art market, therefore there was no need to use old wood to skew the results.  Scientific analysis is a fairly new concept for authenticating tribal art.  Today, Indonesian forgers might consider this issue when making fakes, but certainly not 20 to 30 years ago.  It was on no ones radar at that time.  So, unless you are trying to fool the tests, why carve a fake out of an old piece of wood, especially a piece of this scale, when fresh wood would have been easier to work into shape?  After all, according to the detractors, they were planning on taking a very long time to recreate an ancient appearing surface (you know, all of those acid baths, sandblasting, groove carving, and emersion into water that was previously mentioned) that would have replaced the original older surface anyway.  Once again, there is not one bit of evidence to support this statement.

“The sculpture is not in a traditional style and nothing like it exists in Borneo tribal art.” 

There are a few features on this sculpture that are unusual, with one seemingly unique.  I don’t believe I have seen another Dayak sculpture with these exaggerated hunched shoulders, cradling elongated earlobes.  That doesn’t mean this feature doesn’t exist in other figures, as I have not seen every Borneo sculpture ever made and neither has any one else.  Sure, there are traditional stylistic formats in Borneo art, but there has always been room for innovation with plenty of known authentic examples displaying seemingly unique, unusual, or bizarrely wild features.  There are so many Dayak sub-groups and sub-sub groups, many of them consisting of just one village, that odd variations and one-offs are likely more normal that suspected.

It has been pointed out that other features, including the overly elongated jawline and the way the figure is perched on top of the post are not traditional styles.  I would disagree with this view, although unusual, there is nothing in traditional Borneo art that forbids these variations. Regardless, there are many other features that are known and often associated with the Kayanic Dayak cultures.  I have certainly seen other sculptures with the same structure on the top of the head, the large round eyes, nose shape, open mouth with bared teeth, a powerful expanded chest, the tapered waist, arched back, and protruding buttocks, as well as the long lanky arms with pointed elbow joints and hands resting on the thighs.  It is possible that part of the structure flowing down from the figure along the back of the post represents a tail.  If so, this is another feature not uncommon on other archaic Dayak figures.

Keep in mind that this piece has been dated to about 500 years old.  That puts it in a very rarified group of Borneo sculptures.  Dayaks were prolific carvers with ample resources, so it could easily be assumed that thousands of figurative sculptures were made over just the last millennium.  The vast majority of known Borneo sculptures are less than 200 years old.  There is a very small group of known sculptures that are believed to be over 200 years old and an even smaller group at 500 or more years old that have survived intact.   For at least 30 years, I have tracked as many of these early sculptures as possible and what is clear; there are indeed early examples that more or less follow a traditional format that remains consistent into the historic era.  But, there are also unique examples and odd variants that only appear for a short time in the carbon dating record.   With so few early examples to use for comparison how does one reach, with such certainty, the conclusion this style did not exist in the past?

Some critics will add:  “Factories with expert craftsmen regularly produce high quality fakes for the market.”  Additionally, they have visited these factories and been shown the process.

“Factory” is a term certain dealers over-use to imply pieces were manufactured and/or mass-produced.  There are factories that do make tourist goods, like batiks, furniture, cheap reproductions, decorative items, etc, but I doubt there are tribal art “factories” mass-producing high quality fakes.  What is likely is there is an unknown number of small workshops with a handful of people making a modest amount of items they hope will pass onto the market as authentic. 

I make this point, because I can’t imagine a scenario where a workshop (if one exists) capable of producing high quality fakes, especially ones that would be difficult or impossible to detect in the market, would ever allow the very people they are trying to deceive access to their locations, and then reveal their trade secrets.  Yet, one dealer in particular has repeatedly claimed that he has visited many of these workshops and been made privy to their techniques. 

I know a few others that have also made somewhat similar claims, but when pressed admit they were taken to a not so-secret location where a few obvious fakes statues were laying about.  No one to my knowledge has ever proven they were actually allowed in a high-end workshop, let alone shown any of the work in progress.  Not one bit of evidence, like a few photos or a video from a cell phone, showing a skilled craftsman in the process of making a great fake, has come to light.  

Another point often missed is that I have never come across any situation where those making fakes or reproductions in Indonesia stop with just one piece.  The normal routine is to make as many as they can sell!  It seems so unlikely that a workshop would make one great fake, sell it successfully, and then move on to something else.   
For example, about five or so years ago, several reasonably good reproductions of a special type of Dayak “cave” guardian figure appeared on the market in Bali.  They initially passed as authentic, a few were purchased, so immediately additional pieces appeared for sale.  I came across at least a dozen more on the market before it became clear these were forgeries (that’s another story, but one with verifiable evidence to prove they were fakes).  The word was out, yet several more of these fakes were able to make their way into the market.  The sources behind the fraud didn’t make just one, they made dozens, and long after the fraud was discovered.

As “proof” of forgery, these statements are just tired and overused nonsense.  There is nothing verifiable to back them up.  Regardless of the lack of any credibility to these statements, they continue to be used by disingenuous dealers because they know it’s difficult to disprove a negative.


In my opinion, the current owners of this sculpture did everything possible to provide the most comprehensive scientific data available to authenticate this potentially important work of art.  Yet, without one shred of actual credible evidence to the contrary, this object was condemned as a forgery.  The negative statements were no more than hearsay, misinformation, fanciful stories, a string of illogical
conclusions, and frankly, blatant lies.

Why would so many in the tribal art community so easily propagate (or regurgitate) seemingly obvious suspect or unverifiable information, while dismissing actual facts and logic?  I don’t have a simple answer, but there are several behavioral patterns in play that I believe contribute to the problem:

There are personal and professional rivalries of course, an issue not limited to the art business.  Perhaps based on some petty squabble, perceived slight, or falling out in the past, one dealer may just have it in for another, willing to take down rivals and their material out of pure spite.

An all too common practice with some of the dealers in this business is the belief they can lower the status of their competitors by constantly trashing their inventory, thus elevating their own status in the minds of collectors or other dealers.  Additionally, they try to position themselves as the one dealer with the expertise to always spot the fakes, while claiming others cannot.  If successful, they might convince collectors to take them on as advisors and/or the exclusive source for future material.

There are some that have a hard time formulating their own opinions.  They are ruled by a crowd mentality, too insecure to go against the flow.  While others will parrot any rumor they hear, perhaps to appear to be “in the know.”  Then there are those who automatically default to the negative, because it seems like the safe bet, as you can always claim later you were just being overly cautious. 

In this case, the ringleader and henchmen behind the attack are known.  Worse, they are repeat offenders and not likely to stop, as their constant attempts to defame others and their material too often bear fruit, as rotten as it is.  They never seem to understand (or care) that discrediting authentic pieces sows unnecessary confusion and insecurity into the market, and has the potential to fall back on their own material.  In fact, many of these critics have owned or sold pieces with the same surface characteristics of this sculpture, but have conveniently chosen to ignore this inconsistency.  

Regardless of the reasons, I have no tolerance for people who continually condemn pieces maliciously or without real evidence.  They are not only damaging the reputation of the seller, but the object itself.  By disparaging an authentic work of art or artifact, they are essentially thieves stealing the history of the art and from the culture that made it. 

*Full disclosure:  I do not have an economic interest in this particular sculpture.  I have no personal connection to the gallery or owners.  I wasn't aware this piece existed until I saw the ad in Tribal Art magazine.  But, as a specialist in Borneo art, I have had and likely will have similar pieces for sale, so I do have an interest in honest evaluations of this material, based on real evidence and logical observation.  


(November 2013)
My responses to the above negative statements were meant to apply to hardwood sculptures from Borneo Island.  Sculptures carved from softer woods are easier to manipulate and in other areas of Indonesia, at least two of these critiques are legitimate.  For example the Toraja people on nearby Sulawesi Island carved effigies of important ancestors, call Tau-Tau.  Tau-Tau are usually standing or sitting figures, with features that are intended to resemble the characteristics of the deceased.  These figures follow a refined and formal style with little room for innovation.  Additionally, these sculptures are always carved from the heart of the Jackfruit tree (Nangka).  The highly compacted grains allow for a smooth finished surface and the original yellowish color gradually mellows to a honey-brown tone.  Tau-Tau lacking these features and surfaces or carved from other woods (including poor quality pieces of jackfruit), would be suspect.

(November 2013)
For an interesting and timely comparison, read the descriptions of two well-known Dayak "river" pieces in the recent Dallas Museum of Art publication "Eyes of the Ancestors" (pages 135 and 136). The text could easily be applied to the Dayak sculpture in Paris, as all three objects share a similar history, including surviving a considerable amount of time in a marine environment and most importantly, having at least a few dramatically unique features unknown at that time.

Conversely, the negative statements aimed at the Paris sculpture could just as easily been used to unfairly condemn the Dallas examples.  Fortunately for the DMA, their sculptures were purchased prior to this recent outbreak of "river madness" so their authenticity was never questioned.


Unknown said...

First let me tell you that you have set a new standard for intellectual integrity in this business.

Badly trashing the competition never brought more value in any market. Ever.

Its like a 101 in any basic business education.
How come we still are in the dark ages in this market ? Not mature enough may be.

Will this piece change the game in this market ? Possibly.
As I do believe that this statue has a power that slowly but surely "attracts" people who ever saw it. Once you study the matter you quickly realize how BS is the bad press.
So with the help of expert like you, I do believe that the market will leave the "kinder garden type of behavior" and will go toward more scientific studies, more expertise which means more value for everyone (clients, sellers, third parties like scientific, experts, editors etc...).
At the end of the day, clients will trust expert and sellers that add value and trust to a business and not destroy it.
Reputation is difficult to build but easy to lose. One expert could lose all it credibility if he fails one too many time to do his job with a certain integrity.

This piece, its incredible charisma along with its extensive scientific study, could be the one that breaks the camel's back.

Unknown said...

How do I get started with Borneo Tribal Art?