Notes from the Field

  • Responses
  • by Paul Williamson
  • March 4, 2011

Anthony Cutler's "Carving, Recarving, and Forgery"

I am pleased to be able to support wholeheartedly Anthony Cutler's insistence on the fundamental importance of a close inspection of the physical properties of all medieval ivory carvings before proceeding with any wider study. Like Professor Cutler, I have been invited to opine on many pseudo-Byzantine ivories in the last thirty years; indeed, I know that we are often shown the same pieces, the Stuttgart Ascension relief (his fig. 21) being one of these. Spurious pieces continue to appear with relentless regularity, and in 2007 I saw on the London art market another modern version of the Christ Pantokrator plaque, illustrated as his fig.19, albeit more fragmentary and missing its lateral borders. Many of these carvings are clearly of nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century date, but there is reason to believe that several are of considerably more recent manufacture.

As Professor Cutler makes clear, the mistakes of the forger are not always simply technical, such as the misunderstood cutting of hinge-recesses (fig. 15). Old-fashioned connoisseurship–"a good eye"–and style criticism will always play a key part in identifying copies and fakes, and it is perhaps surprising how often the forger is betrayed by iconographic solecisms or botched inscriptions. The great value of Cutler’s publications–on genuine as well as fraudulent Byzantine ivories–has been to open our eyes to how the objects were made, to look anew at the backs and sides, to interrogate the carving techniques and condition of the pieces and to ask what this tells us about the craftsman and the ‘biography’ of the work of art.  He has introduced new pieces into the literature, encouraged all of us to look as closely as he does, and has cast valuable light on ivories normally left unobserved, lurking in the shadows of conventional art history.

Dr. Paul Williamson
Keeper of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass
Victoria and Albert Museum


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