Mob mentality condemns Borneo sculpture in parcours kangoro court
by Mark Johnson
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
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. s seen on this sculpture, these surfaces tend
towards a consistent grayish color.
THAT’S WEIRD, SCIENCE!
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.
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
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.
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”.
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
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.
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”.
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”.
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”.
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
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”.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
THE PLOT SICKENS
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.
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.
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.