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A (Possibly) Fake Portrait of Nero 31 October 2005

Posted by Troels in : Ethics , trackback

I have previously mentioned Eric Varner’s recent book Mutilation and Transformation. It offers a full catalogue of imperial portraits subjected to damnatio memoriae. This is helpful, but there are a few things that bother me about the book.

One of them is that Varner includes a portrait of Nero, that is very likely to be fake. The head appeared on the market about 10 years ago, and was offered to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, who temporarily put it on display. The Glyptotek has a very nice collection of Roman imperial portraits, but Nero just happens to be one of those emperors not represented (they do have 2 altered portraits of Nero and 1 portrait of the young Nero, however). From a collector’s viewpoint a gilded portrait of Nero would be a coup. This made the proposition in itself rather suspicious, and there is good reason to keep the stance “guilty until proven innocent”, when it comes to ‘antiquities’ from the market.

Possibly fake portrait of Nero, now in a private American collection. From Varner 2004, fig. 87a.

Varner argues that “the technique of gilding and the corrosion of the bronze argue in favor of the head’s authenticity” (p. 70, note 212), but if it is authentic, then it must have been looted from an archaeological site. The inclusion in this catalogue, that will be the starting point for anyone working with damnatio memoriae in the future, has an enormous impact on the market price of the portrait, since it is a stamp of approval of its place in the corpus of Roman imperial sculpture. I therefore find its inclusion highly problematic.

For more ethical issues in archaeology, also check out Elginism.

Eric Varner. 2004. Mutilation and Transformation. Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture. Leiden.


1. Towards an Archaeology of Iconoclasm » Archaeologists at Auctions? - 22 November 2005

[...] Are collecting and archaeology two completely opposing attitudes to the past than needs to be separated? Today most would argue that they should, and that a ‘respectable’ archaeologist cannot collect antiquities. Very politically correct, but it is wellknown that this has not always been the situation. In John Boardman’s books, there are often pictures with captions that inform us that a particular pot is from the author’s personal collection. The legendary Beazley, who wrote the authoritative volumes on Greek vase painters, had a large collection of pottery (now in the Ashmolean), and the list goes on. In the 19th century, collectors were considered to be benefactors to society, today they are portrayed as crooks. This is not a defence of their actions, but just shows how much has changed. What I think this separation or supposed dichotomy denies is the fact that the very origins of archaeology lie in antiquarinism. The antiquities market has to a certain degree developed to meet the needs of the archaeological community, and this is still true today. Before realizing this, I think that the community is speaking with two tongues. This is also well demonstrated by the thousands of pots and other objects that are rotting away (unpublished, unexhibited) in depots all over the Mediterranean. [...]

2. Kris Hirst - 22 November 2005

Yes, archaeology has its roots in antiquarianism. But, is that any reason to continue to support an illicit international trade that results in the destruction of archaeological sites, and robs countries of their cultural heritage to feed a needless greed for antiquities? I don’t think so.

What’s wrong with a nice little reproduction? If it’s a good one, it can be just as attractive as the real thing, support a local artistic economy, pass along an interest in the past, and, most importantly, not feed into the wanton destruction of our collective archaeological heritage.

3. Troels - 22 November 2005

There is nothing wrong with a ‘nice little reproduction’ and I am not supporting the illicit trade in antiquities. I am however questioning the view that collecting by nature is a Bad Thing.

4. Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean » Nero: a fake? - 12 December 2005

[...] Troels has a post on a potentially fake bronze portrait of Nero.   [...]