Artefact of the Month

Counterfeit Figure

June, 2018


There is hardly a museum collection anywhere that does not harbour mysterious objects of one kind or another:  items of unknown origin with no dates or collectors’ names attached, sometimes even of dubious authenticity.  The Museum of Ethnography’s “Artefact of the Month” for June is an anthropomorphic figure of precisely this sort – a piece that suffers from multiple “disadvantages”.  For one thing, though currently inventoried under the number assigned to it in 1970, the figure also bears a second, previous code dating to 1921, while additionally appearing on a list of artefacts transferred to the museum by the Museum of Applied Arts in 1898 – despite that it is known to have arrived in Hungary in 1907.  Although in the mystery-solving business, one often finds that “less really is more,” in this case, the above and further “identifying marks” found on the object finally yielded one that led the museum staff member working on it to a better understanding of its history.

As it turns out, the artefact in question was originally purchased, along with 250 other pieces, from the widow of tragically fated artist Pál Horti (1865-1907) in a transaction conducted with the Museum of Applied Arts in 1908.  In 1904, prior to his death, Horti had been assigned to work at the St. Louis World’s Fair, where he was responsible for designing and arranging the displays for the Hungarian installation.  The choice of Horti for the position was no accident:  as a pioneer of Art Nouveau in Hungary, he had already done memorable work in numerous branches of the applied arts.  However, his participation in the project had the ultimately ill-fated effect of directing him toward a new interest in ancient Hungarian history and the then-ongoing search for the original homeland of the formerly nomadic Magyar people.  No doubt under the influence of contemporary diffusionist theories and domestic debate over the Magyar origin question, Horti gave himself over to the notion of a Sumerian-Hunnic-Magyar kinship, with the twist that in his version, the relationship extended to North American, Mexican, and even Peruvian cultures, as well.  To test his theory on a continental scale, he decided that, after the fair, instead of returning to Hungary, he would remain in the Americas to study “Indian” cottage industry, along with Aztec art and architecture, after which he planned to return home via China, Japan, and India.  In July of 1906, Horti landed in Veracruz, Mexico and in the approximately three months to follow, traversed the entire country.  Of the many things he saw, it was the western coastal area that made the greatest impression, as it was among the languages and material cultures of the indigenous peoples there that he found the most conspicuous signs of a possible Magyar kinship.

In the course of his travels, Horti amassed a collection of some 450 archaeological and ethnographic artefacts, along with watercolour images and plaster casts of objects for which no original samples could be acquired.  The plaster casts included both negative impressions, and positive images of the type that could be cast from them.  Given its flat back, this month’s artefact, too, may have been made using the technique of casting, though the material is not plaster, but ceramic, and the piece was probably purchased ready-made, rather than created by Horti himself.  While no expert in matters of Mexican archaeology, with two years’ study behind him, Horti must have known that the object was a forgery – and an odd, hybrid forgery at that.  Incredibly, while the head of the figure can be readily identified as having the facial characteristics and headdress of a Central Mexican Teotihuacan statuette of the period 100 B.C.E. – 750 A.D., its belly features the mirror image of the xiăng Chinese character for “fragrance” (香).

In all likelihood, the piece is actually a serially produced souvenir and the inverted Chinese character a feature that was placed on it to make it more attractive for sale.  If so, then it is more likely to have been manufactured in Mexico than China, where Horti spent only a few days on his way home.  Unfortunately, the artist never arrived in Hungary:  having contracted malaria in Mexico, he died on 25 May 1907 in Bombay.  First purchased by the Museum of Applied Arts, the collection eventually arrived, one consignment at a time, at the Museum of Ethnography as material of “mysterious” – that is, unknown – provenance.  Yet as noted above, the seemingly daunting puzzle, once the clues had been followed backwards, proved an ultimately solvable one.

János Gyarmati