Focus on the Collection: Classical Reproductions

Black-figure amphora, painted ceramic; by Antonio Scappini, 1902.  Collected by Alfred Emerson, 1902; 8–4092.  Emerson called Scappini, “the best copyist and imitator of antique vases that I have met.”  Scappini copied the scene on the front from a hydria (water jar) from Vulci, Eturia—now in a museum in Würzburg, Germany—dating to ca. 510–490 BCE.  Apollo stands in the middle playing a kithara (lyre), flanked by his sister Artemis and mother Leto.

Written on some of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology’s catalog cards is the word “fake.” Although museums are commonly thought of as repositories of the original and the authentic, many museums have fakes in their collections; some acknowledged, some not. Few see the value in fakes, since they are reproductions that are intended to deceive, to be taken as an original. But the problem of fakes and reproductions is not a simple one.

Copies and reproductions are, in fact, an ancient tradition, perhaps as old as the Classical originals themselves. In Antiquity, there were Hellenistic period (ca. 323–30 BCE) copies of earlier Classical (ca. 510–323 BCE) Greek sculpture, and the Romans were renowned for their numerous copies of Greek works. In fact, many originals exist only in the form of ancient copies.

This tradition was reinvigorated with the Renaissance rediscovery of Classical art, leading to a profusion of Neoclassical copies during the late 18th-early 19th centuries. Some of these copies were created in marble, but most were in plaster. In the Victorian era, most art museums amassed huge collections of plaster casts. Their motives were multiple but it essentially came down to an issue of supply and demand: ancient sculpture was hard to export but popular tastes demanded examples for teaching and as models for artists working in realistic styles.

Head of sleeping Ariadne, marble; by Ernesto Gazzeri (1866–1965).  Collected by Alfred Emerson, 1902; 8–3499.  Born in Modena, Italy, Gazzeri is best known in this country for his elaborate marble sculpture of The Mystery of Life in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Glendale.  The original of this bust, found at Nero’s Subiaco villa in Rome, is in the National Museum of Rome.  In its detailed rendering of the hair, this copy betrays its creation in the late 19th century.

Alfred Emerson—Phoebe Hearst’s Classical collecting agent (1899- 1904)—participated in this movement. The Museum actually has a very wide range of Classical reproductions. First, there are many three-dimensional copies reproduced in their original material: marble sculpture, pottery, and glass. Second, three-dimensional forms were created from direct impressions taken from the original, employing a process of negative and positive casts: in paper (called squeezes) for shallow relief inscriptions, and plaster for marble sculpture. Third, there are the many graphic representations of photographs, watercolors, and ink drawings. Finally, we must note the wide array of “pastiches” and other complex forms in which some ancient object is either heavily “restored,” combined with modern elements, or simply misattributed. These are usually intended to deceive.

Amphora and lid, dark green glass; by the Ludwig Felmer Glass and Porcelain Firm.  Collected by Alfred Emerson, 1900; 8–143.  The Felmer firm of Mainz, Germany, was active in the 1880s and 1890s.  Among their reproductions of over 150 different forms of Roman, Frankish, Medieval, and Persian glass, were copies of ancient Roman glass from the Rhine valley.

Among the highlights in the Museum's collections, certainly, are the roughly 300 plaster casts, thirty-five examples of Roman glass produced by the Mainz firm of Ludwig Felmer, nineteen bronzes by the noted Neapolitan sculptor Sabatino de Angelis, and eight pots recreated by Antonio Scappini, a master ceramicist, also working in Naples. In the museum’s catalog, almost all of these are listed as “reproductions,” indicating that Alfred Emerson was well aware of the status of his purchases.

The collection of Classical reproductions continues to fascinate. In 1992–93, museum anthropologist Frank Norick included many of them in an exhibit, "Too Good to Be True". Between 2003 and 2005, Stephen Miller, former professor of Classics, devoted several classes to the study and conservation of our plaster casts. In 2009, two Scappini pots were exhibited by the San Francisco Airport Museum in their show of Classical Greek pottery.

Surely, reproductions of all sorts—including outright fakes—are a museum topic that will always be with us.

Ira Jacknis, Research Anthropologist