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A case of mistaken identity

By: Madelaine Love, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 17 Jan 2017

Egyptian artefact or plaster-covered tin can? AM's Materials Conservation team uncovers an elaborate fake. 

Cat statue

Cat statue
Photographer: Madelaine Love © Australian Museum

This figure of a cat was donated to the Australian Museum in 1913 by Ernest Wunderlich, Museum trustee and Egyptian enthusiast. However, not everything was as it seemed.

While initially believed to be a genuine Egyptian artefact, the statue's authenticity was questioned by Australian Museum experts as early as 1914. Then, in 2001 signs of corrosion gave the game away. Further investigation by AM Conservators determined that the figure was in fact an elaborate fake — a rolled steel can, coated with tin or zinc and disguised with a layer of plaster.

Since rolled steel was unknown to the ancient Egyptians, the artefact was X-rayed for more clues as to its method of manufacture. These X-rays showed that the cat’s two front legs were made from two steel rods and the head from solid plaster. A surface finish had been applied to give the statue an authentic ‘corroded bronze’ look.

While not an ancient artefact, likely made in the early 20th century, the cat is interesting evidence of market demand for Egyptian antiquities at that time.

We caught up with Colin Macgregor, AM’s Manager — Materials Conservation and part-time sleuth to learn more about the fakes trade.

How do you spot a fake? Sometimes the style is just not right but often it is the materials that give it away. If the materials used are poor quality something will deteriorate and then expose a flaw on the surface.

Are these objects still of historical value? These are of some interest as they indicate that there was enough value placed on the real material to make it worth faking. Although it can also be an indicator of the huge gap between the poverty in a society and the wealth of collectors/tourists. Good quality fakes of roman coins can be bought quite cheaply in North Africa but it is still worth the effort of making them for the small financial returns.

What’s the most convincing fake you’ve ever come across? The mummified “bird” that we found in the collection and made 2,800 years ago was apparently quite genuine until we X-rayed it and found it was mud inside. You couldn’t have spotted it as an ancient fake without the technology to see beneath the wrapping.