Original, Copy, Forgery

Objects in Conversation 18/Nov/2003 - 3/Oct/2004
There are many differences between a collection of ethnographic objects and a collection of historical objects or objects of fine art. "In no other branch of the sciences do you more often hear the word 'original' spoken, and in no other branch of the sciences is it so difficult, so impossible, in fact, to differentiate what is 'original' from what is not," wrote the German ethnographer Hermann Bausinger on the subject of ethnography. The words "original," "copy," and "forgery," are slippery terms with changing meanings, and accordingly, or perhaps precisely for this reason, assist us in shedding light on various features of cultural change and enlightening us as to what the findings of ethnography really mean.


In ethnography, the concept of originality has always been intertwined with those of the "original," the "primitive," the "exotic," or the "folk." Whether they admitted it to themselves or not, ethnographers associated originality with the traditional, with items produced by peasants, shepherds, town craftsmen, or the aboriginal peoples of faraway lands in a manner free from "other" influences, such as those of industrial/technological civilisation or of the more learned layers of human society. An object thus produced satisfied the needs of either the producer or his or her environment, gaining further originality points for the place and manner of its use.

The present exhibition explores the major facets and development of the creative process as dictated by need and tradition by taking a look at a variety of objects. The exhibition places objects considered more-or-less authentic in juxtaposition with copies and forgeries, so that visitors may compare original works with specimens produced using various copying techniques and forms of imitation, including the sorts of reconstructions produced specifically for museums.

The Problem of Categories - Example of Drinking Vessels

The Museum of Ethnography, founded in 1872, today houses close to 250 thousand pieces. Most of these are related to Hungarian folk culture, though many belong to significant collections on the cultures of European or other foreign lands. This considerable body of material can be divided into categories in any number of ways. For example, if we extract vessels used for drinking from various of the museum's collections, we would quickly discover that these may be placed into a number of easily discernible sub-categories, based on any number of factors: where they come from, what layer of society used them, what historical age they typify, what form they take, how they are decorated, or what they are made of. It would also soon become apparent that the work crafted by hand differs distinctly from that made in a factory. Drinking vessels might also be distinguished based on field of use, as objects intended for everyday use tend to differ from those produced for rites and festivals. Some specimens may even serve as an expression of the wealth or social position of their owners.

Museum Collections

Museums specialising in the subject of ethnography arose during the second half of the 19th century, their purpose to collect and preserve objects related to the material cultures of human societies. In this endeavour, special attention was paid to peoples, social groups, and classes whose cultures had escaped the influences of industrialised civilisation. Assisting in the job of collecting such objects were travellers of various collectors and private donors. Museums also purchased objects, sometimes even entire collections, from merchants and traders.
In the quest for overseas material, museums in countries boasting foreign colonies had the advantage. Others less fortunate did their best with what resources they had in keeping up with the pace of collection. It sometimes happened, for example, that museum curators would provide doctors serving on ocean-going ships of war or officers on trading ships with detailed instructions and lists on what to purchase for their collections. Such instructions alre already included warnings as to the presence of "imitations," impressing upon collectors the importance of selecting only "authentic" articles.
The foundations for the Hungarian National Ethnographic Collection were laid by János Xántus, who collected a considerable amount of material in India, Japan, China, and Borneo, partly during participation in a Austrian-Hungarian East Asian commercial expedition that took place in 1869 and 1870. His collection covers areas of interest ranging from the humble products of eastern industrial art, to objects produced using the "primitive" techniques that typified traditional lifestyles.
Additions to international collections were also spurred by a desire on the part of Hungarians to understand where they came from, to learn about related peoples, and to acquaint themselves with exotic world cultures. Expeditions, explorers, noblemen with the resources for travel, and big game hunters all visited faraway lands, collecting as they went. Once placed in the museum, these objects provided the opportunity to discover common features and look for any meaning they might hold.

Copying and Variation

Within the framework set by tradition, objects are created with degrees of variation, the result of a process of continual re-invention. Thus, every object produced in the traditional context constitutes an original work that is never an exact copy of its predecessor. Some communities regard certain elements and styles as their own, while others reject them as foreign. At the same time, "traditional" form is itself the product of innumerable transformations and continual change. This is partly the consequence of the discrepancies that come with copying, and partly the result of external influences. The skill of the artist or craftsman, the level of knowledge involved, attitudes toward tradition, the desire for innovation, and a changing environment all breed change. New types of objects, new materials, and new techniques of manufacture appear even under traditional circumstances, while a changed environment produces new forms and new solutions out of fundamental need.
At the beginning of the 19th century Hungary experienced a sudden growth in the number of guilds serving demand within the peasantry for various objects. Certain products had become part of the cultures of specific communities under the influence of the wandering peddlers who had networked the country since the 18th century. At the same time, the possibly homogenising influence of education and "high culture," the appearance of new techniques, new patterns, and new materials, and the fact that innovations arising within the upper reaches of culture sometimes appeared in otherwise unrelated territories, must all be taken into account.
Though decorative objects are generally created from a repertoire belonging to the ethnic group of the creator, it is also clear that craftsmen everywhere strive for variation of form and ornamentation. Individual motifs and elements can appear in conjunction with the most diverse objects, forms, and materials, and the spread of a new production technology goes hand in hand with the survival of previously fashionable patterns and forms. For example, patterned materials produced using the Hungarian technique of blue-dying that was fashionable in the 19th century sometimes displayed geometric designs characteristic of damask weaving, while predecessors of a special embroidery technique used in Hungary in the 18th and 19th century included elements of pattern used previously by cloth weavers.
By the 20th century, the ranks of producers and consumers had become separate from one another, and a particular geographic and societal division of labour had been created. Factory-made materials, patterns, and products had also entered the creative process, as had other innovations before them.

The Creative Personality

Although some historical folk art styles were used by entire communities, the best pieces have always been produced by craftspersons of outstanding talent or dexterity, who were also frequently the individuals who introduced innovations and passed them on to others. Unfortunately, the names of these people are not always known. Shepherds often signed the carvings they produced, allowing future generations in Hungary, for example, to map out the careers of such excellent artists as Zsiga Király and Mihály Hodó. In other branches of the arts, however, the signature of the artist is singularly missing, though in many cases a community might identify the producer of an object based on its style. As with the works of famous artists, here, too, imitations, even forgeries, are inevitable.
Bori Kis Jankó (1876-1954), or Mrs. Borbála Molnár Gáspár, the embroiderer and pattern drawer from Mezőkövesd, came from a family whose influence on innovation in folk art was both strong and lasting. Her grandfather was a furrier, and her mother and sister embroiderers and embroidery pattern makers. For her part, Bori Kis Jankó was one of those who took the embroidery of Mezőkövesd to its greatest heights, making it richer, more decorative, and more colourful than it had ever been before. The community of Mezőkövesd accepted the innovations introduced by this extremely talented craftswoman, copying them and passing them on until her name eventually became synonymous with what is now known as Matyó folk art. Her works of embroidery were augmented by monographs on embroidery that brought her fame in foreign lands, as well.


Folk culture is not known for its overuse of expensive, valuable materials. In fact, until the end of the 18th century, peasants were prohibited from wearing clothes made of materials inconsistent with their social position. The lack of a material or decorative element, or the absence of knowledge on a particular production technique, often served as motivation for the development of a means of imitation. When supply problems prevented Kalotaszeg craftsmen from procuring the silk ribbons they needed to produce their traditional folk dress, they simply substituted embroidery for the missing material. In the same way, silk embroidery was used to replace the metal-thread laces so fashionable in the clothing of Mezőkövesd, banned by the church in order to prevent the impoverishment of its people in the 1920s.
The demand for expensive materials and expertly formed objects promoted the spread of the types of methods that allowed some objects to be produced more quickly or inexpensively, while still resembling the more expensive originals. In this way, peasants adapted and copied fashions popular in the higher circles of society without having to change the actual forms and techniques involved. Behind the 17th and 18th-century penchant for filet lace, azure embroidery, and open-cut work, for example, stood the influence of the fashions of the 16th and 17th centuries. Items characteristically produced by furniture makers included pieces of marbled or grained softwood furniture, painted to imitate the surfaces of more expensive hardwoods or marbles. Precious metals and expensive leather and fur products were also imitated in a variety of ways. Attempts to mimic luxury items using simple techniques constituted one of the primary forces that spawned the early modern industrial revolution in Europe, a process that influenced folk culture to the greatest degree with the advent of mass production in the second half of the 19th century.

The Copy and Duplication

The ability to duplicate through technology brought about significant changes in numerous areas of folk culture. Mass printed textiles prompted changes in folk dress, and printed pictures in the use of imagery and the range of accessories employed in folk customs. One large category of copied images, for example, wrought startling changes in the area of folk religion. Entire manufacturing facilities were constructed around the sites of religious pilgrimages, where sculpting shops, glass painters, and print shops kept pilgrims plentifully supplied with icons and figurines. Often such copied items were taken home and placed in family altars or shrines sunken into the facades of houses, or were hung on the walls of the best rooms or saved in prayer books.
With the process of duplication, the relationship between observer and image was permanently changed: stand-alone pictures, cheap canvases, the wood, stone, and copper etchings popular as calendar illustrations, and oleographs all significantly influenced the motifs and ornaments found on decorated folk products. The illustrations in dime novels, newspapers, and books became the living images that adorned wooden implements, carvings, and embroidered cloth. It was also the process of duplication that brought great works of art such as Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper or the cherubs of Raffaello's Sistine Madonna to the peasants who copied them so readily.

Copy and Reconstruction

Reproductions are most frequently made of unique and original objects, pieces seen, for all practical purposes, as irreproducible. The reasons for this are various. The value of the reproduction is determined by the knowledge and skill invested in it, but may never exceed the value of the "original". The best reproductions seek to imitate the characteristic features of the original, using original materials and techniques. If this is done well, the reproduction will be called an "accurate copy."
When an object of art is missing pieces or material, it is sometimes suggested that the deficiency be remedied. In recent years this type of intervention has been used only where truly needed and only so that any added material may be easily identified. While often increasing aesthetic value, reconstruction of an object may also decrease its degree of originality.
Occasionally, the only viable way for a museum to preserve a piece is by creating a reproduction. Large-scale buildings, vehicles, and sometimes even ritual objects may be preserved only as copies. Collectors, too, prefer to rely on locally produced models in ensuring a copy is truly accurate.
Originality as a concept is increasingly associated with value as traditions disappear. The group Méta, for example, who play music on traditional musical instruments, strive to preserve and reconstruct the original musical environment of Transylvania. Members of the group have invested a great deal of effort into collecting material for the music they play, recording what is left of traditional musical technique, documenting the instruments they encounter in great detail, and attempting to make new ones just like them. Both instruments and music on the one hand follow living patterns, which the group makes accessible to its audience, and on the other hand represent a starting point for individual interpretation and expression.

Tourist Art and the Souvenir

"What is original?" asks the tourist before buying some local speciality or souvenir at a market or shop. Tourists generally look for items typical of places they visit, things that others at home will immediately recognise as coming from requisite locale, things that are different from the objects found at home, but which do not actually clash with the home environment. Articles created for tourists are affected by two factors. Their producers fashion them after their own traditions, while at the same time moulding them so that they accommodate what the tourist wants and take any stereotypes of the region into account.
Artisans and shoppers have a mutual effect upon each other. In the mid-19th century, traders in many places began encouraging natives to fashion certain types of objects expressing for sale, but in any case, the sudden appearance of travellers and researchers and the interest demonstrated by museums all acted to the same end. The copies of original objects created for tourists underwent significant changes in material, technique, and work invested so that they could be produced in numbers sufficient to satisfy market demand. The objects were still made by hand, a fact representing value in the eye of the purchaser, but workmanship became less refined. Carving became flat, and less detailed. As compensation for this decline, articles were given more impressive proportions and decorated in heavy-handed fashion with bright colours. It is sometimes falsely believed that a poorly crafted article is probably very old and thus more valuable. In such a case it is more likely that the artisan who produced it simply spared himself the trouble associated with finer work. In the past, people had more time to spend on decorative objects, and the care they took was generally accompanied by a taste for the elegant and the harmonious.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the most successful arts are those born without reference to local tradition, expressly for the purpose of satisfying tourist demand. Examples include the industry in modern Makonde sculpture, which serves as proof that market demand may inspire not only the manufacture of shoddy mass products, but also, on occasion, of completely new styles.


The activities of substitution, reproduction, and forgery are integrally bound to the increase in the value accorded hand crafted articles and works of art. In fact, the concept of forgery may only be understood in relation to that of originality. Although the word has been a fixture in the field of ethnography since its inception, it is only since the 19th century that it has been applied to objects produced for collectors and tourists. According to many collectors and other professionals, serially or mass produced articles are fundamentally different from "original" ones made for private use.
Though both reproductions and forgeries employ a similarly wide range of production techniques, the forgery, unlike the reproduction, involves the intent to deceive. In many cases a forgery may be identified by its use of materials or techniques inconsistent with the time or place of its supposed manufacture. At other times, information on the manufacture of the article is simply absent.
Forgeries of ethnographic objects from the late 19th and early 20th centuries concentrated primarily on mimicking style, sometimes emphasising certain characteristic features seen as important, while mixing them with non-contemporary elements in eclectic fashion. Unlike their modern counterparts, early forgers often sought to impart authenticity through the application of written characters or selected motifs, at the same time paying little attention to technical details. Museum pieces identified as or suspected of being forgeries not only stand as a witness to the success or failure of forgers to deceive their audiences, but also serve to illustrate both the technological abilities of past ages and the development of attitudes toward the concept of originality.

Curators: Vilma Főzy, Mónika Lackner, Gábor Wilhelm

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