Fakes and Facsimiles

Last week CNN produced an article headlined Great Fakes: Top Tourism ReplicasThis article was highlighting a number of replications of famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and Michelangelo’s David, mostly in China. Among the “fakes” were several facsimiles of the tombs of Tutankhamen, Thutmose III, a Caravaggio painting, and the cave paintings at Lascaux. However, what this article (and many others such as the BBC) have failed to recognize is that there is a rather large difference between what constitutes a fake and what constitutes a facsimile.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word fake as “a thing that is not genuine; a forgery or sham”. By contrast a facsimile is “an exact copy”. The two are not even considered synonyms of each other. In the context of art and culture a fake can be described as perfectly as the Eiffel Towers in China: something that is intended to deceive, and yes draw in tourists (most of them domestic). With the case of the Egyptian tombs in the article (and the Lascaux caves) the intention is very different. These facsimiles have been made a necessity because of tourism, they are not an attempt to increase it. The tomb of Tutankhamen, famous world-wide for the legendary curse and copious amounts of gold, has survived intact for more than five thousand years, shut off from the world on the death of the boy king. The tomb was never designed to withstand visits from thousands of people every day. What do a vast number of people do when they are packed into a tiny space in a very hot climate? They sweat…vast amounts, they change the temperature with their body heat, they push and scrape and knock the surfaces, they generate dust, they smell, they bring in contamination of many kinds. Such problems have affected the tombs of Seti I and Thutmose III –  Seti’s tomb has been closed since the 1980’s and Tuthmosis’s tomb has been covered with glass panels that protect in some ways but cause other problems and change the whole feel of the tomb. The eventual result is that tourists wont be able to visit the Valley of the Kings at all. The same is true of the caves at Lascaux and Altamira that were never intended to cope with exposure to the outside world, let alone thousands of tourists, has had to be closed due to the rise of mass tourism. When people go to Lascaux now what they are seeing is in fact a facsimile, constructed to preserve the original not to fool or rip off tourists. Similarly what the facsimile of the tomb of Tutankhamen is supposed to do is protect the original. By providing an exact replica (with astonishing precision) the facsimile not only provides the experience of the original but it also serves the added purpose of documentation.

The picture of the Caravaggio facsimile on the CNN article has a caption that says “you are not allowed to poke a finger at the original” bar the fact that you can’t touch the facsimile either, this statement is also somewhat facetious. Whenever you enter a gallery such as the Louvre, the National Gallery or the Prado the chances are that the painting you are looking at has been restored several times by people with different agendas and interests. This is certainly the case for Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and Mona Lisa (and virtually all major works of art). So, having had much of the original paint taken off and painted over by restorers the question stands: are they original any more? Certainly the skills of the restorers are rarely, if ever, comparable to the great master whose work they are restoring. Sometimes, as is the case with Veronese’s Wedding at Cana (a vast painting in the Louvre that receives virtually no attention due to the fact that it stands opposite the Mona Lisa) the restorers have even changed the colour of the garments of certain characters. In a strange form of irony this could be taken to mean that the original has become the fake (in the sense of the definition according to the OED). With this in mind the facsimile serves the additional purpose of presenting a highly accurate snapshot of how the object, be it a painting or a tomb, exists today. As such it can therefore be compared with any restoration work done on the “original” and so the changes can be accurately documented, as well as any long term effects experimental “surgeries” that are undertaken.

The difference between the the words fake and facsimile may seem small to many people but the fact is that words are important. In the words of Peter O’Toole in the Last Emperor “if you cannot say what you mean, you will never mean what you say”. In the journalistic profession, a profession that relies heavily on the use of words, this difference is very important. The whole point of journalism is to inform public opinion and not merely pander to its prejudices as seems to be increasingly the case (at least as far as the American and British media are concerned). Evidence for this fact can be seen in the comments section of the CNN article. It is full of comments such as “why pay to see a fake when you can pay to see the original?” This clearly demonstrates a failure to communicate the fact that “paying to see the original” is what has promoted the need for facsimiles in the first place. As for the fake Eiffel Towers and Davids in China, they are so bad they barely deserve a mention in the first place let alone to be mentioned alongside highly scientific and accurate facsimiles.


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