A Crisis in Connoisseurship?
(this essay is slightly modified from its original version in African Arts, XXXVI,1, 2003)
In its most direct sense, a connoisseur is “a person who knows,” although art or music or wine is usually implied as the
subject known. In African art, connoisseurship is about quality and authenticity, surely, but a lot more as well: styles,
periods–the placement of art objects in space and time–as well as artists’ hands, nuances of form–texture, surface, adze
marks, patterns resulting from wear or offerings or rubbing and other kinds of detailed knowledge. All these concerns
privilege the object.1 Today, however, many African-art historians appear not to care about connoisseurship, nor very
much about art objects either, as ironical as that may be. They seem to consider it an unfashionable, outdated, or elitist
activity, tainted perhaps because of its association with dealers and commerce, harking back to stories about the
collaboration between the Harvard art historian Bernard Berenson and the art purveyor Lord Duveen. Despite all their
positive contributions to the study of African art, connoisseurs seem to have a bad name.
Yet the same people who avoid connoisseurship would not like to be caught buying a fake they believed to be authentic–
that is, created by an African person for use within his or her own community or one nearby, and in fact used, normally
over a period of time.2 Nor would they want to mount an exhibition containing objects they thought had been made for
African peoples’ local use but were in fact copies artificially aged and made for sale to outsiders. I have done both, to my
chagrin. I bought an Asante mother-and-child image in Accra in 1976 and later displayed it at UCLA and other venues in
“The Arts of Ghana” exhibition, which I co-curated with Doran Ross (who was also my co-author for the companion book;
see Cole & Ross 1977: fig. 225). Walking through the opening of that exhibition in 1977 with Roy Sieber, who said he did
“not trust the surface” of that maternity figure, I defended its authenticity, even though I knew that Roy might turn out to be
right, that his experience in detecting fakes easily trumped mine. Roy was a fine connoisseur of African art. And of course
he was right.
Two years after “The Arts of Ghana” opened, Doran Ross, along with Ray Reichert, discovered the workshop outside
Kumasi where my mother and child (carved by a master, Peter Boachie) and four other carvings in that exhibition had
been made. All had appeared in The Arts of Ghana book and were illustrated again in an article on the subject by Ross
and Reichert six years later (see Ross & Reichert 1983). This flourishing workshop worked in several styles and had at
least two master carvers turning out original sculptures that slipped seamlessly into the known Asante corpus. It included
batches of kids painting pieces, then distressing them by rubbing dirt over the paint, sometimes burnishing the objects to
“age” them–creating the very same distrusted surface that Roy had quickly spotted. Countless other pieces from that
workshop have fooled people over the years; some have sold for well over $10,000, though of course the carvers got only
a small fraction of that amount. Curiously, the whistle blowing in that article has not deterred the Kumasi workshop very
much, nor has it stopped American and European collectors from buying its products. If a persuasive article like that will
not, I wonder, what will?
A few months ago, in fact, a respected curator at a major museum showed me an African carving, suspecting that it “might
not be right.” The piece was from Ghana, whose fakes I have come to know and respect (and like–mine is still on my living-
room table) over the years. Its image was even illustrated in Ross and Reichert's article, which the curator in question had
either not known about or had forgotten. I spotted its true, and questionable, colors right away. The curator felt vindicated,
and we began to discuss all the museums now advertising for curators of African art–five at last count–and how most
people in the field appear to be unconcerned about acquiring the connoisseur’s expertise that is so crucial to this
The Proliferation of Fakes
Many hundreds or more probably thousands of Africans make a decent living today in cottage industries turning out “art”
for foreign consumption. This is great for many local economies, and much of this production is tourist art easily
recognized as fresh and new, with no deception involved. Yet part of that output wreaks havoc among some serious
collectors a long distance away. It includes skillfully carved “copies” that are very close to familiar object types. Some are
new in appearance, but others are made to look old and used. Still others are originals, like my Asante mother and child –
credible variations on known themes, but again, made for sale to outsiders. People are also modeling clay or wax that
ends up as a terracotta sculpture (say, Nok or Inland Niger Delta) or a copper alloy casting (say, Benin or Ife). Most of
these works are created expressly to deceive unwary buyers. Some recent “ancient” pieces are very convincing indeed.
A number of Nok and Benin fakes that have appeared in the last five or ten years are especially close to their prototypes,
and also especially finely made and beautiful, which at the least makes the deception more “interesting” (see Barbara
Blackmun’s “A Note on Benin’s Recent Antiquities” [p. 88], written in response to a draft of this essay.) Other craftsmen
are taking locally made pieces that might be a few decades old and giving them “older,” well-used surfaces and the
glistening patinas coveted by collectors. In fact there are legions of objects with doctored-up patinas on shelves and
tables in collectors’ homes, their rich, deeply resonant surfaces suggesting long, loving use and thus substantial age.
Lots of chicanery, too, surrounds the “scientific” (or otherwise) dating of many of these objects, especially terracotta and
copper alloy pieces. For a price, I hear, one can obtain an ancient (or appropriately convincing) date, with a certificate,
from some of the labs that allegedly date terracottas. A logical assumption is that as prices rise on the international
market, fakes will get both better and more plentiful. And certainly the false patina, on an otherwise authentic object, will
continue to appear. I would think that few high-priced object types and styles are not being reproduced or enhanced today
for markets outside the African continent.
The avarice and artifice of fakers and unscrupulous dealers keep both groups at least one step ahead of the few sleuths
out there who hope to see them exposed. How many finely wrought but undetected fakes are now in public and private
collections? Will the passage of time make them easier to expose, as has often been the case historically (the fake
Vermeers by van Meegeren, for example)? Who, if anybody, is monitoring these fakes, the techniques for creating
patinas, the false dating, the international traffic in them? Workshops said to exist in France and Belgium are apparently
addressing the very high-end market; they employ skillful people who probably often start with objects made in Africa for
African use, but create both age and quality by careful, ingenious manipulation, especially of surfaces. Such pieces are
also known to come from Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon. Some of those I have seen are “new” objects, which is to say they
extend the corpus of like-styled works rather than being among those already known. One fine example was a cross
between Igbo and Idoma styles. I have no idea how many of these workshops exist, and finding the answer would be very
Part of the problem is that people who become enlightened to the fact that they have bought one or several of these
objects usually do not want to advertise their mistakes, however much they have learned, painfully and sometimes quite
expensively, from the process. The subtleties and tricks of fakery never quite become apparent until one gets burned by
buying one or several doctored pieces. It is when the stakes get high that people learn to be connoisseurs, and the fact
that few African art scholars are avid collectors or are able to buy expensive pieces probably has a lot to do with the fact
that most are not especially competent in detecting fakes.
Some owners or curators of questionable objects simply do not want to know about them; they will continue to make
mistakes, sometimes costly ones. Some appear to want to know, but get furious when an object of theirs is said to be
suspect or bogus. Others may know but not care, which can be okay unless they sell the works for high prices; then they
are frauds, and presumably punishable. Still others may not believe the person who identifies the fakes; if the so-called
expert is wrong, as happens in a few instances, he or she may thus be open to a lawsuit. Empirical proof is hard to come
by. And it is always possible to find someone else who will legitimize or authenticate pieces of whatever vintage from all
over the continent. Indeed, there are licensed appraisers who have illustrated fakes in their advertisements.
Perhaps it is perverse, but in some ways I am delighted that “experts” are being fooled on a fairly regular basis, even
though I decry the relative deforestation that so many wood copies and fakes have accounted for. It is a shame, too, that
shops selling these objects tend to have far greater visibility in American and European cities than galleries handling
legitimate, quality pieces. Those shops give great African sculpture a bad name. Sieber quotes Bill Fagg as saying “Fakes
are the work of the devil and a sin against art” (in Ross 1992:45). The greatly enlarged “copies” and sometimes crudely
carved variations on familiar themes do aesthetic violence to venerated, and venerable, works of art. I saw a recent
version of the famous Horniman Museum “Afo” (or Northern Edo) maternity figure, aggrandized and with an “antique”
surface, in a San Francisco shop a few months ago. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask the price. I believe it was
being sold as an authentic old piece, and I’d guess it was priced at over $15,000. The many hundreds of rote knock-offs
of chi wara antelopes roaming the world today vitiate that inventive tradition. Already, I think, copies of this sort quite
substantially outnumber examples of the same kinds of objects that were made for local African use.
The Publication of Fakes
Increasingly, books and catalogues are being published with some, and in a few cases the majority, of illustrated pieces
being fakes. How publishers, not to mention authors, decide to bring out such books is a mystery to me. They damage not
only the serious study of African art but also its popular appreciation. The examples shown are often egregiously poor in
quality, never mind the question of authenticity. These books and the collections they illustrate find unsuspecting
audiences who “learn” about African art from them.
Fakes also make their way into otherwise valuable books that in some respects set the standard for the field. I would like
to think that The Arts of Ghana is one. The sumptuous Africa: The Art of a Continent, edited by Tom Phillips, is another. It
is the record of a serious if hastily assembled 1995 exhibition, which initiated the continental survey of African art that is
becoming the norm today. The book illustrates one object brought to my house several years before the London show by
its former owner (not the owner credited in the exhibition catalogue). I gave this person a number of reasons why it could
not be an authentic piece made for local use, despite its weathering, apparent termite damage, eroded surface, patina,
and the quality of its sculptural treatment. I had even met its sculptor (long before seeing the piece in question) and have
seen a dozen fake masks by the same hand (the object is not a mask). Maybe the owner did not find my assessment
credible. What I find especially interesting about this situation is the fact that I was not asked to write about this piece for
the book, though it comes from an area in which my experience is acknowledged by many. Possibly the previous owner
told Phillips that I had questioned this object. I would be interested to hear if others know of additional fakes or
substantially altered misrepresented pieces in the book.3
Connoisseurship, “Objectness,” and Aesthetic Response
Roy Sieber, along with Bill Fagg, was one of the great connoisseurs of the last thirty or forty years. He was also an
enthusiastic collector, having started in the 1950s and '60s, when almost anyone could afford to buy an occasional piece,
even one of quite good quality. For Roy the object was primary, the starting point for art historical inquiry and its end point
as well, as he said in his 1992 interview with Doran Ross for African Arts (1992:39). Yet as far as I can tell, the subject has
not been of much interest to many of Roy’s numerous students, although he held a few seminar sessions most every year
on authenticity and fakery. Those former students who are museum curators are the exception, I hope.
Today a scant handful of European and American collectors and dealers have the wide expertise of someone like Sieber
or Fagg, both of whom handled thousands of pieces over several decades. Naturally I and other art historians have the
most sensitive eyes for art from areas we have studied intensely; but all of us have a continuum of knowledge about art
from various parts of the continent. Such knowledge varies according to places we’ve worked, exhibitions we’ve done, the
extent of our interest and our visits to dealers’ shops as well as private and museum collections in the U.S., Europe, and
Africa. To be good at discerning quality or detecting questionable pieces in anyone genre, one needs to have seen
dozens, hundreds, or preferably thousands of examples, and have an interest in these aspects of connoisseurship. Many
traditions, of course, lack those numbers. There are neither manuals nor quick courses on how to judge quality and
identify the counterfeit, both skills that are to some extent subjective–which is perhaps why two “experts,” both well
respected, can disagree. This happened in 1967, when I showed a group of Akan goldweights to Roy Sieber in Ghana,
then a few days later to Bill Fagg in London. Sieber declared them all authentic, while Fagg thought several were fakes.
Many of these subjects were addressed in what has come to be known as the “fakes issue” of African Arts (April 1976).
To what extent is the recognition of great quality (or fakery) subjective and intuitive? In his 1973 article on
connoisseurship, Fagg distinguished between subjective value judgment (or intuition) and intellectual judgment–which he
saw as the two great complementary faculties of the human mind (Fagg 1973:152). He regarded the subjective as guided
and recognized by the intellect, which I would translate as the accumulation of experience with objects, the careful and
comparative study of as many aspects of them as possible, to the point where one’s response is no longer reasoned but
somehow felt, thus intuitive. Is this not a shift from left-brain cognition to right-brain perception? The great work expresses
the ineffable in and by its forms (details, textures, volumes, relationships, rhythms, and so forth). It is untranslatable into
rational discourse. Equally, nuanced perceptions of its quality and uniqueness come from intuition and feeling. Form,
then, creates meaning. Objects create meaning for us, whereas they are meaning (and much else as well) for African
people. They are truth and reality; sometimes spirit and power, all of which transcend beauty. These perceptions by
Africans (as by us) are of course highly complicated, and probably to some extent culture specific; they are too involved to
probe in any depth here. Western definitions of beauty are of course far too narrow for many African situations.
Yet, if value and meaning are lodged in the African objects we describe as art, why are scholars so little concerned with
their “objectness,” their truth and integrity as material things? This aspect of connoisseurship is aesthetics: the
understanding of “beauty” and, in a larger sense, quality, the appreciation or analysis of form in art, primarily in objects.
The study of African art cannot but begin with objects, however far it may depart from them into theory, expressive or
visual culture, context, history, symbolism, economics, iconography, memory, process, and other pursuits, all of which are
valuable. What has happened to aesthetics in our discourse? Asked another way, the question is: How does
connoisseurship relate to all those other aspects of our work?
There are two distinct sorts of aesthetic focus and evaluation: the responses of African people to their own arts, and our
responses to the same work. The latter is my concern here, although I am a bit puzzled that–unless I have missed them–
there have been few studies of African aesthetic response in the last fifteen years. Kris Hardin’s book, The Aesthetics of
Action (1993), is one, and for me valuable in that it goes beyond objects themselves into realms of process, performance,
and action both in everyday life and in spheres we would label artistic. Another is Susan Vogel’s Baule: African
Art/Western Eyes (1997), which assesses both Baule and Western responses to Baule arts of varied types in a
The relative dearth of object-oriented study extends to those increasing numbers of students of African art whose main
focus is modem and contemporary work. For much of this recent art, context as well as meaning to local African peoples
appear to hold little relevance, since it is made primarily for a Western (read European and American) or a Western-
oriented African audience. It is also for the most part secular, and has little to do with the agendas of village or court life,
at least in ways that are comparable to earlier arts usually labeled “traditional.” Yet, again, meaning is embodied in form,
in the objects – perhaps even more so than in earlier types of art, which were rarely subjective and were usually highly
contingent upon their local uses and contexts. Where are the discussions of quality among these recently made works?
Where are aesthetic responses recorded and argued? Is contemporary art “too new” for aesthetic evaluation to have
kicked in? I doubt it.
How will art historians deal with the problems of authenticity and quality in earlier and recent arts? Does it matter that the
number of people interested in aesthetics and connoisseurship is dwindling? Who will be hired for museum curatorial
positions, and how will they learn on the job? Would workshops on the detection of fakes only exacerbate the problem, or
could they be conducted, for example, by a major museum, with enrollment limited to scholars and collectors? 5 (A
problem here is that while many dealers are excellent at identifying fakes, some others are very good at creating them...)
As museums collect more contemporary African art, how will questions of quality be decided? Will the arbiters of taste in
the collecting and exhibiting of African art be able to discern the good fakes tomorrow or in a few generations? Will it
matter? Some who read this will say, “No, it really does not matter.” I obviously think it does, or I would not be raising these
questions. Unless we begin to take authenticity and quality more seriously, more museums will begin to buy fakes or
accept them as gifts. Will we then have a crisis on our hands?
Herbert M. Cole
1. The Rembrandt Project, ongoing for many years, which has benefited from the participation of the very best Rembrandt
scholars and conservation experts in the world, is one prime example of the usefulness of this pursuit.
2. I'm sure there are all kinds of postmodern objections to my use of the word "authentic" as well as contingencies around
the word "fake," but even so, you know what I mean.
3. One other is the authentic Igbo Okorosia mask identified in the first English edition of the book as Guro, and discussed
by Tim Garrard. The error was fixed in later editions.
4. As an aside, I would plead for a future holistic aesthetic study of African response that combines visual, kinetic, and
aural components, just as they are combined in a rich masquerade or festival. I believe that for African peoples who
create and take part in them, such mixed-media "process" works are the true and important art forms, rather than the
quite isolated figures and masks that have often been the subjects of aesthetic studies. See for example Thompson 1973
and Vogel 1980, or my own work on Igbo Mbari houses (Cole 1982). This of course puts a new twist on the usual
understanding of connoisseurship-perhaps more closely allied to the understanding and appreciation of opera than visual
5. I organized an exhibition and symposium, called "Authenticity and Quality in African Art" around its various dimensions
in 1991, at the University Art Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We showed many fakes, copies, and
"real" objects in a range of quality.
Cole, Herbert M. 1982 Mbari: Art and Life among the Owerri
Igbo. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Cole, Herbert M. and Doran H. Ross. 1977. The Arts of Ghana.
Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, UCLA.
Fagg, William. 1973. "In Search of Meaning in African Art," in
Primitive Art and Society, ed. Anthony Forge. London: Oxford
Hardin, Kris L. 1993 The Aesthetics of Action: Continuity and
Change in a West African Town. Washington, DC, and London:
Smithsonian Institution Press.
Phillips, Tom (ed.). 1995. Africa: The Art of a Continent. Munich
and New York: Prestel.
Ross, Doran. 1992. "Interview with Roy Sieber," African Arts
Ross, Doran H. and Raphael X. Reichert. "Modern Antiquities:
A Study of a Kumasi Workshop," in Akan Transformations:
Problems in Ghanaian Art History, eds. Doran H. Ross and
Timothy F. Garrard. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, UCLA.
Thompson, Robert Farris. 1973. "Yoruba Artistic Criticism," in
The Traditional Artist in African Society, ed. Warren d' Azevedo,
pp 19-61. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Vogel, Susan M. Beauty in the Eyes of the Baule: Aesthetics and Cultural
Values, Working Papers in the Traditional Arts 6. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.
Vogel, Susan M. 1997. Baule: African Art/Western Eyes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.