“America’s Souvenir to the Iranian People” … a Fake?
— Mohammad-Ali Najafi, Iranian Antiquities Director speaking to CNN.
“A determination of “authentic” should never be made on the basis of a lack of evidence to the contrary. The evidence needs to support authenticity.” — Mark Rasmussen, scientific investigator/rare collections
The big thaw in US – Iran relations has been compromised. The world’s leading authority on antiquities fakes — long-time Metropolitan Museum of Art Ancient Near East expert Oscar White Muscarella, who excavated throughout the 1960s in Iran — has told me that “America’s souvenir to the Iranian people,” the just-returned silver griffin allegedly 2,700 years old and from Iran’s Kalmakarra Cave, is actually a modern forgery. A major scandal brews as the Iranian government, apprised of the dubious nature of the artifact, now scrutinizes the US gift for its authenticity. Following is Muscarella’s description of the object, which appeared last year in an Iranian volume in honor of Massoud Azarnoush, the late director of the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research (Oscar Muscarella, “An Unholy Quartet: Museum Trustees, Antiquity Dealers, Scientific Experts, and Government Agents, Papers in Honour of Massoud Azarnoush, IranNegar Publication, Tehren, 2012).
“The artifact is a hollow silver vessel, formed from several joined units to create a winged, open-mouthed griffin, walking on both clawed and perhaps hoofed feet. Its body is furnished with three large upright funnels, two attached at the sides, the third inserted into the raised (surely uncomfortable) enlarged aperture of the creature’s anus. I have no information about the manufacturing method except for the presence of binding rivets in its legs. From a photograph showing a scale, it appears to be small, with a width of 8 inches/20 cm. and a full height of 7 inches/ 17.5 cm. The vessel has been consistently labeled a rhyton in print, but this would be correct only if the creature’s open mouth served as a pouring spout for liquids poured into the funnels (wine, water, body wastes?). . . . It is a modern Iranian artifact. For stylistic and technical reasons — the griffin’s head is frozen mute, its eyes stare, the head, wing and leg patterns are awkward and meaningless, and the leg rivets are modern: all attributes unlike any ancient conception — I condemned it as a forgery.”
I casually mentioned the dubious nature of the artifact in a 2006 interview with Hicham Aboutaam. Aboutaam is a Lebanese antiquities dealer who sold the silver griffin in 2002 for $950,000 to Paula Cussi, a Mexican billionaire and trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cussi first saw the piece in Geneva in 1999, the year before Hicham Aboutaam brought it to the US from Zurich. Aboutaam owns Phoenix Ancient Art gallery on Madison Avenue with brother Ali. The brothers also own a gallery in Geneva. A US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigation followed and the piece was confiscated because Aboutaam claimed the object had been taken from Syria not Iran prior to 1999 (false invoice). The case went to court in New York, Aboutaam returned the money to Cussi and paid a fine of $5,000. The artifact was put in storage in Queens for a decade until its recent return to Iran. But here’s the rub.
As a condition to the sale, Cussi asked Hicham Aboutaam for authentication of the piece. Aboutaam reached out to three people. The New York Times reported at the time of the Aboutaam trial that “Hicham Aboutaam sent the piece to three experts, who determined that its workmanship or metal content were consistent with other objects from the Western Cave and surrounding sites in Iran.” The NYT story is misleading, however, because not all three “authenticators” saw the whole object. One of them saw only a 1 – 1/4″ slice of silver. Also, while two of the experts were qualified to comment on the metal (not style), the third was an Egyptologist and ancient jewelry expert and not qualified to comment on either the style of the so-called Western Cave griffin or the materials science. I have now heard from all three who looked at the evidence for Aboutaam. One who did see the whole object and did test the metal was Tom Chase of Chase Art Services. Chase is known in the museum world for his metals expertise. He also analyzed the metal on Stuart Pivar’s “bronze boy“. Chase told me by phone that the piece looked a bit “strange,” but, again, style analysis is not Tom Chase’s job. He emailed the materials report to me, originally submitted to Aboutaam and dated May 9, 2002 (now on record in the New York Attorney General’s office). According to Chase, the object is a hollow drinking vessel “with 3 wine cups attached to the body,” the mouth of the griffin open for pouring. He notes in the report that the object is made up of 15 separate pieces (not counting rivets):
“the chest and head (possibly cast), the rear section of the body, the three cups, the two wings, the four legs, and the four feet (cast). The feet seem to be soldered into the bottoms of the legs. The two sections of the body appear to be soldered together. The rest of the joints are made by riveting the pieces together. In a number of cases, the joint is flanged so that it will have adequate mechanical strength.”
Chase wrote that it was difficult to sample the object “because there is no lower edge to the shape”. He decided to take a 1- 1/4″ cutting, using a saw, from the underside of the rear funnel. He then shared that sample cutting with Peter Northover, head of Oxford University’s materials science-based archaeology group. Chase further explains his decision in sampling:
“The tops of the cups would be good candidates for sampling, but they are very prominent when the object is on display. The bottom of the front and rear parts of the body are quite perfect and smoothed, and it would be a shame to sample from one of these areas.”
He noticed that the griffin’s scales were crescent-shaped punches and “the rest of the design seems mostly to have been done with a simple linear chasing tool, repeated hammer blows to the tool as it moves along forming lines.” Chase indicated that another piece sent to him by Aboutaam, a lion bull, had punch marks and chased tooling, but the punch marks were annular not crescent-shaped. He said that the griffin was old, that he’d detected a “granular pattern” in the right front shoulder, a result of the “migration of copper and embrittlement with age.” But he also told me in conversation that even if the metal is ancient, an artifact can still be a modern forgery. Chase concluded in his report that other tests could be carried out on the object, “including neutron activation for trace elements in the silver (or other trace element methods), further study of the corrosion products, and careful study of the metallographic cross-section”. He advised that Peter Northover was doing this test. Northover did not examine the actual object. Northover recently emailed me explaining that “when looking at a piece of alleged ancient metalwork,” five criteria have to be met, and he concluded:
“For a piece like the griffin to pass, ALL [emphasis added] these boxes should be ticked. If it is the piece I think it is, THEN IT HAS BEEN CLEANED [emphasis added], which limits the information relating to the fifth question.”
Northover said those five boxes that need to be ticked are:
“ the alloy is correct for the period and place
 the impurity pattern as it reflects both the original ores and the processing history should be correct for the period and place
 the methods of manufacture should be appropriate
 any internal corrosion should be consistent with the proposed age
 surface condition and corrosion should be consistent with the supposed history of the piece: this is more tricky because so many pieces are cleaned or re-patinated but often we can distinguish an artificial patination treatment.”
Northover also indicated that, “[for] some alloys, and silver alloys are some, age-related changes in the microstructure should be considered. This is an area of active research and our understanding of the question is continually developing.” The third expert is Jack Ogden of Striptwist Ltd, who I reached by phone in the UK. Ogden is an Egyptologist and expert on ancient jewelry, as noted above, and not on materials science — he admits he’s only taken a few courses on the subject. Ogden previously commented on the Dorak Treasure hoax in a series of articles of mine in 2005, because of a tie-in to ancient Egypt. Regarding the griffin, Ogden told me he saw the object only once in 2002, he thinks at Aboutaam’s gallery. Although he has no record of where he saw it, he said he never comments on a piece he hasn’t been able to “examine closely”. Ogden did not examine the griffin a second time or send it to a lab for testing. The pieces coming out of the area were in general stylistically peculiar, Ogden said further, “and who knows what they did three millennia ago?” He thinks the stylistic approach should be “ignored” in the case of the griffin, that it’s all about materials. Again, this is not Ogden’s area to comment. Following is Ogden’s analysis of the object, which he emailed to me:
“I was convinced of its genuineness and as with much of the so called cave find, which received a huge amount of online and press coverage back in the 1990s, the odd style is actually rather reassuring. There were undoubtedly some fakes made in the wake of the discovery, but there was just so much of the original genuine group that it wasn’t really necessary!
Among my reasons for believing the object to be genuine, were the overall construction and types of tool mark – right on for the period. There was the presence of ancient repair – there were clear signs of use, then damage (including broken off wing) then repair – all in antiquity. Particularly compelling was the marked stress corrosion cracking in some areas. This is a type of corrosion caused by the copper-rich areas of the crystalline structure of the silver preferentially corroding relative to the silver-rich areas. The result is cracking that follows the crystal boundaries of the silver. With silver, the presence of such cracking is taken as extremely strong evidence of very considerable age. Theoretically it might be possible to replicate this in a modern piece of silver by adding certain trace elements to the alloy plus some sort of heat-treatment, but I am unaware of any successful implementation of this by fakers.
I really see no reason to doubt its antiquity, as I said, the rather odd style actually counts in its favour (forgers tend to copy known types. . .)”
Curiously, ICE failed to respond to Oscar Muscarella’s request for photos of the griffin several years ago. But, according to Muscarella, in 2005/2006 ICE agent James McAndrew did send photos of the object to a scholar of Iranian art history, Wouter Henkelman, now in Paris at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Sciences Historiques et Philologiques. Henkelman asked McAndrew about the griffin’s cultural background. Muscarella said Henkelman informed ICE agent, James McAndrew, that the griffin was a forgery and shared the photos with Muscarella. Muscarella also told me that a US agent handling the griffin case requested that the Met accept the Aboutaam/Cussi griffin as a loan. He was unclear whether this was before or after Henkelman informed McAndrew that the griffin was a forgery. (Note: At the time this article is posting Henkelman could not be reached for comment.) Should the Obama administration have checked further before sending its peace offering to Iran? We will soon find out. . . Meanwhile, Muscarella does not place the blame on Obama’s shoulders. He thinks the US was right to send a cultural gift to Iran, just not that one.
Suzan Mazur is the author of The Altenberg 16: An Expose’ of the Evolution Industry and of a forthcoming book on Origin of Life. Her reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur,Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. For a few years along the way she was a runway fashion model, visiting Iran in 1976 as part of a US bicentennial goodwill tour of the Middle East (former CIA Director Richard Helms was then ambassador to Iran and attended the Tehren fashion gala).