Demi Lovato’s Egyptian Artifacts Instagram is a Loser-Loser
Holding an ancient work of art in your own hand and feeling connected to the person who owned it thousands of years ago is thrilling. Pop star Demi Lovato thought she was alive just such a thrill earlier this week. Lovato, who uses the pronouns them/them, posted videos on Instagram showing ancient Egyptian figurines and cuneiform tablets they said had just been purchased from an online antiques dealer.
I’m an art historian who studies the cultural heritage black market, and I have bad news for Lovato: the objects I’ve seen in the videos are more likely 21st century AD counterfeits than antiques. of the 21st century BC.
Although I haven’t examined the artifacts in person, Lovato’s videos are very revealing. Ancient Egyptians sometimes placed hundreds of small shabtis figurines like the ones Lovato displayed in tombs, thinking they would come to life as servants of the deceased in the afterlife. Although many survive from antiquity, shabtis have long been such popular tourist souvenirs that they have been forged in large numbers since at least the early 19th century.
Lovato is certainly not the only one to be deceived by people selling fake antiques online. While working on a book on art forgery, I found countless examples of ridiculously bad forgeries.
A painting of Jesus made in 18 BC. — miraculously before he was born! A ancient roman statuette of Hercules molded from a plastic action hero! Neolithic animal sculptures they are really just clumps of mud!
It is a known problem that scammers are flooding the internet with fake old masterpieces. In the fall, a New York gallery owner pleaded guilty to forging antiques, receiving five years of probation. When investigators from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office performed the bust, they found a hidden back room in his gallery, filled with the belt sander and putties he used to make factory-made shabtis look like supposedly valuable ancient works of art.
On the other hand, if Lovato actually bought fakes rather than genuine antiques, that’s probably good news. Unless your purchase comes with a stack of documentation proving that an antique was unearthed and exported legally, your ordinary buyer runs the very real risk of ending up with looted artwork.
Egypt has regulated the export of antiquities like shabtis since 1835. But recent years have seen an increase in the looting of Egyptian archaeological sites by people eager to take advantage of the turmoil of events like the Arab Spring. Looters tear up graves in search of a few salable trinkets, causing serious damage to the past. To compound this historic tragedy, dozens of children have died after being forced to crawl through narrow looting tunnels.
On the other hand, if Lovato actually bought fakes rather than genuine antiques, that’s probably good news.
Two other objects in Lovato’s video are square clay tablets with cuneiform writing. Many of these tablets survive from what is now Iraq, recording life in startling detail (including what are possibly the oldest customer service complaints in the world). Collectors have long been fascinated by these tablets, and they have long purchased the products from forgers, who need nothing more than a little clay and a sharp stick to enjoy such permanent fascination.
But again, buyers should be even more wary of real cuneiform tablets. The looting of Iraqi archaeological sites during the Gulf War flooded the market with thousands of tablets. Looters have even discovered and looted the libraries of an entire ancient city, though scholars have yet to discover its location. During the recent conflict in Syria, even more tablets found their way to collectors, as groups like the Islamic State looted archaeological sites to fund their conflict. The FBI has warned dealers and collectors not to buy anything that appears to be from an Iraqi or Syrian site without being sure it was not sold through a terrorist group.
Today, consumers are asking questions about purchases ranging from diamonds to avocados to make sure they’re spending their money on products that are sustainable and ethically produced. If we can verify that a coffee package bears a fair trade label, we can also ensure that we are not helping to destroy world history and ruin lives just for the sake of preserving an ancient work of art. . The past is a non-renewable cultural resource. However, it looks like fakes will be freely available as long as there are people to fool.