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John Ueland

How a Single Mom Created a Plastic Food-Storage Empire

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John Ueland

On an unseasonably warm day in April 1954, hundreds of women in cowboy hats gathered outside Tupperware’s Florida headquarters to dig for buried treasure. There, in a nearby swampy area dubbed the “Forest of Spades,” 600 shovels stood at the ready. The excitement was palpable. At the appointed signal, the women raced for the roped-off soil, grabbed shovels, and began to hunt frantically for loot.

It was the pinnacle of the inaugural Tupperware Jubilee, a five-day, gold-rush-themed affair celebrating all things Tupperware. No expense was spared: To give the event a Western feel, frontier-style buildings with false fronts had been erected and bulls and horses were trucked in. The women, and a smattering of men, had traveled from all across the country to participate. A collection of Tupperware dealers, distributors, and sales managers, they made the pilgrimage for the motivational speeches, sales instruction, and especially for the bizarre bonding rituals.

For five hours that day, they prospected for mink stoles and freezer units, gold watches and diamond rings. One of them, Fay Maccalupo of Buffalo, New York, dug up a toy car. When she saw the real Ford it represented, she planted her face against the hood and began to weep, repeating, “I love everybody.” Four women fainted and had to be revived with smelling salts. It was understandable, considering that the total cash value of all the prizes buried in the Florida dirt was $75,000.

Presiding over the treasure hunt was the general sales manager of the Tupperware Home Parties division, a 40-year-old woman named Brownie Wise. For hours, she cheered on the ladies from a loudspeaker with an air of royalty. As she watched them hop on shovels and unearth the rewards of their labors, she couldn’t help but feel proud. Wise took satisfaction in seeing her hard work pay off—once again. The jubilee, which she had organized, had all the pizzazz and spirit expected of an official Tupperware event. The media agreed: Network news was there to cover it, and Life magazine ran a photo essay highlighting the excitement and glamour.

Clearly, there’s more to Tupperware than leftovers. The story of the ubiquitous plastic container is a story of innovation and reinvention: how a new kind of plastic, made from an industrial waste material, ended up a symbol of female empowerment. The product ushered women into the workforce, encouraging them to make their own money, better their families, and win accolades and prizes without fear of being branded that 1950s anathema, “the career woman.”

Digging in the dirt for a gold watch may not mesh with today’s concept of a successful working woman, but at the time, the near-religious fervor seen at the jubilees and other Tupperware gatherings demonstrated just how ground-breaking the company’s sales plan was—the product became a multimillion dollar success not by exploiting women, but by embracing and boosting them. All of this was because of Brownie Wise. The story of Tupperware is her story.

Brownie Wise, named for her big, brown eyes, was born in rural Georgia. Her parents divorced when she was young, and as a teen she traveled with her mother, who organized union rallies. While touring the Deep South, Brownie started giving speeches at her mother’s rallies and soon proved to be a gifted and motivating orator. She “awed people,” writes Bob Kealing in his biography Tupperware Unsealed. “[They] were surprised that someone so young could deliver a speech like a pastor.”

Wise was married briefly, but by 27, she was a divorced single mom in suburban Detroit. During World War II, she worked as a secretary at Bendix Aviation, a company that made parts for navy torpedo planes. It was a decent but unfulfilling job. On the side, Wise penned an advice column for the Detroit News, writing under the alter ego “Hibiscus.” A housewife who led an idyllic life with her child and husband in a home called “Lovehaven,” Hibiscus had everything Wise did not. But what Wise did possess was an endless fountain of determination. As she wrote in a journal at that time, “I wanted to be a successful human being.”

It all started with a bad door-to-door salesman. When a Stanley Home Products salesman knocked on her door and proceeded to deliver a terrible sales pitch for cleaning supplies, Wise scoffed that she could do better. At the time, Stanley was experimenting with a peculiar sales model: home parties. A New Hampshire mop salesman had watched his numbers fly through the roof after he invited a bunch of women over for a party that included a mop demonstration. The company encouraged other salesmen to try the strategy, but many of them delegated the party-hosting to their wives. Thinking it’d be a fun job on the side, Wise started selling Stanley products at parties too. Before long, she was making enough money to quit her job at Bendix.

Wise was blessed with the gift of gab, and her special blend of folksy real talk and motherly encouragement helped her rise through Stanley’s ranks. Soon she was in management and hoping to ascend even higher. But those illusions were quashed at a meeting with Stanley head Frank Beveridge, who told Wise she’d never become an executive. Its halls were “no place for a woman,” he said. Wise returned home furious. The rejection lit a fire in her—she vowed that someday, somehow, she would prove Beveridge wrong.

She didn’t know that the key to fulfilling this dream would be in plastic food-storage containers. Wise first glimpsed Tupperware at a sales meeting. One of her coworkers had seen the products gathering dust in a department store and decided to bring them in. At first, Wise didn’t think they were anything special. But when she accidentally knocked a Tupperware bowl off the table, she realized its full potential: Instead of breaking, it bounced.

It seemed like magic. Tupperware was unlike any home product she’d seen before. It was attractive, coming in pastel colors and flexible shapes, almost like art. More importantly, it was functional—no other competing product even came close. Convinced of its potential, Wise traded in her Stanley brooms in 1949 and started throwing parties to sell Tupperware. What she didn’t intend, exactly, was to kindle a revolution.

AP

The most amazing thing about Tupperware wasn’t that it extended the life of leftovers and a family’s budget, although it did both remarkably well. It was, above all, a career maker. When women came to one of Wise’s parties, they were more than just convinced to buy the product— Wise was such a charming host that she persuaded many buyers to also become Tupperware salespeople. The more parties Wise hosted, the more tricks she learned to convert women into Tupperware faithful. Putting people on waiting lists, for instance, made them more eager to buy, so she signed them up regardless of whether the product was available. She also discovered that throwing containers full of liquid across the room made customers reach straight for their checkbooks. Amassing more and more saleswomen, Wise encouraged her followers to do the same. By October 1949, she had 19 recruits, enough to move her supplies out of her house and into a larger warehouse. Driven by the idea of making money simply by throwing parties for friends and neighbors, the women in Wise’s workforce ballooned in number. Soon, other Tupperware parties were taking place across the country. Wise’s team in Detroit was selling more Tupperware than most department stores. This soon attracted the attention of the no-nonsense founder of the Tupperware Corporation, Earl Silas Tupper.

Tupperware, true to its name, was Tupper’s masterpiece, and he was counting on it to make his dreams come true. Having grown up in a poor Massachusetts farm family, he had vowed to make a million dollars by the time he was 30. He hadn’t. He did have a host of esoteric inventions—among them, a fish-powered boat and no-drip ice cream cone—under his belt. But with a wife and family to support, he’d concentrated on a practical career in plastics, first at DuPont and then at a company of his own, which made parts for Jeeps and gas masks during World War II. When the war ended, Tupper decided to buy cheap surpluses left over from wartime manufacturing. He figured he’d be able to do something with them.

That’s how he ended up with a glob of greasy black polyethylene, a smelly waste product left behind when metal is created from ore. Tupper took it and, after months of trial and error, wrangled the slag into submission, creating a light-weight plastic that refused to break. Tupper dubbed it “Poly-T,” and, taking inspiration from the way paint cans sealed, created a flexible container with a noiseless lid that snapped on. He called the box Tupperware. He patented the seal in 1949 and rolled out 14 products he called the “Millionaire Line.” The only problem? He couldn’t get anyone to buy it.

At least not until Wise came along. Her sales record was remarkable—in 1949, she’d rung up $150,000 in orders and was offered a promotion: distribution rights to the entire state of Florida. In the spring of 1950, she moved south with her son, Jerry, and her mother. She found a store space, and by May she’d opened her business and was scouting for new salespeople.

Still, not everything was going smoothly. Along with disputes over turf with other distributors, she was constantly contending with botched orders, shipping delays, and product shortages. In March of 1951, Wise had had enough. She called Tupper in a fury. It was the first time they’d spoken, but she was too livid for niceties; she ripped into him immediately. This was hurting not just her bottom line, but also his. Did he not understand how crucial it was that the problems be fixed immediately? Tupper assured her that he’d fix any issues and then asked a favor: He wanted to hear her sales secrets.

The next month, the two met at a conference on Long Island and Wise explained her selling technique. It was pointless, she explained, to think that people would see Tupperware on store shelves or in catalogs and want to buy it. Instead, people had to touch it, squeeze it, drop it, seal it. They had to experience Tupperware from a trusted friend or neighbor. She gave a bold prescription for saving Tupper’s business: Ditch department stores altogether and focus entirely on throwing home parties.

Tupper took the advice to heart. So much, in fact, that the day after their meeting, he created a new division just for home parties and asked Wise to be the general manager. Wise had reached her goal: She had become an executive. It was a perfect fit, too. She had a stellar track record—she was selling more Tupperware than anyone anywhere—and Tupper was bowled over by her charm. “You talk a lot and everybody listens,” he said.

“She was the yin to Tupper’s yang,” Kealing writes. “Where he was fussy and reclusive, Wise lived to mingle with and inspire the dealer workforce.” They were a match made in sales heaven. Or so it seemed.

AP

In 1952, the first full year of Wise’s watch, Tupperware sales rocketed. Wholesale orders exceeded $2 million. During the last half of the year, sales tripled. Tupperware parties did exactly what Wise promised they would, and she became the company’s shining star. That year, Tupper gave her a salary of $20,933.33, more than she had ever made. For her birthday in 1953, he presented her with a gold-dyed palomino horse. Even more remarkably, he gave her the freedom to do practically whatever she wanted. So Wise traveled the country recruiting, presiding over sales conferences, and announcing contests and doling out prizes for incentive—including, sometimes, her own clothes.

By the looks of it, most of Wise’s Tupperware recruits fit neatly into the stereotypical role of a proper housewife. But, in reality, they surreptitiously represented a new kind of female empowerment. During World War II, many women had no choice but to enter the workforce. At its end, many of them had no choice but to leave it. Suddenly, selling Tupperware at parties allowed women to straddle both worlds. They were employed, yet they didn’t appear to challenge their husbands' authority or the status quo. This pioneering entrepreneurial model allowed them to inhabit a workforce outside of the one the hustling salesman inhabited, and, in many cases, to do even better than he did. And that power relied specifically on a network of female friends and neighbors.

The parties weren’t just a way for women to keep occupied—it was a way they could contribute to their family’s bottom line. Most women who worked outside the home had low-paying jobs in fields like light manufacturing, retail, clerical work, and health and education. The money—committed dealers could bring in $100 or more per week—was a revelation. The opportunity for success was so great that the husbands of some Tupperware ladies left their own jobs to work with their wives.

Wise was something of an early Oprah, giving away fantastic prizes, operating in a grass-roots, word-of-mouth fashion and showing rather than telling other women how to succeed in the comfort of their own homes. The fact that she made many women understand the benefits of becoming salespeople, building the brand further, simply made her a fantastic executive.

Wise embraced the spirit of female entrepreneurship wholeheartedly. In her prime, she wrote a morale-boosting newsletter called Tupperware Sparks, published a primer called Tupperware Know-How, and had a 52-minute film, A Tupperware Home Party, made as a training tool. She even convinced Tupper to move the company headquarters to Florida. When Tupper bought property in Kissimmee, Wise turned it into a Mecca-like pilgrimage site for Tupperware devotees.

Part of the power of Wise’s sales technique, which at times seemed more faith than business, was that it gave the impression that the sky was the limit, and it relied on collective power. This wasn’t just the traditional salesperson’s dog-eat-dog world: Instead, the group was a “family” that helped one another climb to the top. Women who had previously only had their names in print upon birth or marriage were being recognized for their success, with their names, photographs, and accomplishments appearing in Wise’s newsletters. Along with making their own money, they received rewards—top distributors got cars—and the chance to collaborate with other women in a friendly but competitive environment. Wise increased the fervor with her annual jubilees, which had their own rituals, like candlelit graduation ceremonies and group sing-alongs featuring choruses of “I’ve got that Tupper feeling deep in my heart.”

“No woman got praised for scrubbing floors,” Elsie Mortland, who became Tupperware’s Home Kitchen Demonstrator, told Kealing in an interview in 2005. “But when they got praised for selling Tupperware, they had something to be proud of.”

Wise was the head of the household, and the Tupperware ladies all wanted to be a part of her extended family. Success was limited only by how hard a person was willing to work, a belief that Wise preached passionately. Unfortunately, she had been duped into thinking her boss shared that opinion.

Alamy

As Wise became the face of Tupperware, sales and press continued to skyrocket. In 1954, she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week. But as glowing as the magazine’s profile was, it contained warning signs about the future of her partnership with Tupper. The piece credited Wise and her sales technique with Tupperware’s estimated $25 million in retail sales and seemed to downplay Tupper’s role as president of the company he had created.

Tupper had never craved the spotlight; in fact, he was known to use the back door of his office to avoid attracting attention. But he was keen to ensure that his product, not an employee, received the lion’s share of any attention. And somewhere along the way, Wise had started to upstage the plastic containers she helped make famous. After the Business Week article, Tupper wrote a note to Wise that contained a glimmer of the storm that was to come: “However, good executive as you are, I still like best the pictures ... with TUPPERWARE!”

The good press continued but, in 1955, after several powerful distributors left the company, sales began to lag. Hard times strained Wise and Tupper’s relationship. By 1956, angry letters were flying back and forth between them, and at one point, Tupper stopped taking Wise’s calls. Her complaints and frank criticisms, previously helpful, had become jabs he couldn’t endure. He also started to believe that she was costing him money, irked that she had her own side business selling self-help books at company events. More to the point, he started to suspect that if he tried selling the company—which he was planning to do—having a female executive would get in the way.

Finally, in 1958, Tupper flew to Florida and fired Wise. After a heated legal battle, she received only $30,000 as a settlement. She didn’t own her house and was ordered to vacate. She had no stocks in the company; she didn’t even own many of the clothes she wore. The man she’d helped make a millionaire didn’t seem to care: Tupper ordered her name expunged from the company history and buried the 600 remaining copies of her book in an unmarked pit behind Tupperware’s Florida headquarters. Later that year, he sold the company to Rexall Drug for $16 million, divorced his wife, and bought an island in Central America. He died in Costa Rica in 1983. Wise, on the other hand, tried starting new companies but never achieved the same success she had with Tupperware. She led a quiet life with her horses, pottery, and her son until she died at her home in Kissimmee in 1992.

Her influence, however, has not waned. Today, according to the PBS American Experience documentary Tupperware!, the product is sold in about 100 countries, while “every 2.5 seconds, a Tupperware party is held somewhere in the world.” In this respect, the Golden Age of Tupperware hasn’t ended so much as it has solidified. When was the last time you stored food in a plastic container with a sealing mechanism? Tupperware is so much a part of our food culture that we don’t even think about its continuing influence, and yet we still rely on it daily.

This story is one of reinvention too: a useless plastic reimagined into something needed, of food being stored in wholly new ways, of women emerging from their kitchens to showcase their worth and proclaim their identities, of sales techniques evolving to embrace the customer, and of the singular character of Brownie Wise, who changed what it meant to be a woman in the workforce. Because of that, as Houston Post writer Napoleon Hill wrote in 1956, “It has been estimated that Brownie Wise has helped more women to financial success than any other single living person.”

Early in Wise’s tenure at the company, Tupper presented her with a piece of the raw polyethylene he’d used to make Tupperware. She saw it as poetic proof of his vision: He had created something beautiful from this unappealing glob of plastic, using nothing but imagination and persistence. It was “the best sales story I have ever heard in all my life,” she wrote. She considered “Poly,” as Tupper called it, a prized possession and would have her women touch it for good luck, telling them, “Just get your fingers on it, wish for what you want. Know it’s going to come true, and then get out and work like everything ... and it will!”

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Brigido Lara, the Artist Whose Pre-Columbian Fakes Fooled Museums Around the World
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In July 1974, Mexican authorities sent a man named Brigido Lara to jail. His crime wasn't a violent one, but it was serious nonetheless: Archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), a Mexican federal government bureau devoted to preserving the nation's heritage, claimed that Lara had been found with ancient ceramic artifacts looted from archeological sites in the state of Veracruz.

Lara was convicted of stealing and smuggling antiquities, but he insisted he wasn't a thief—and he could prove it. All he needed were tools and some clay brought to his jail cell. 

FORGING A CAREER

Lara grew up in Veracruz, in the village of Tlalixcoyán. While his parents were peasant farmers, Lara showed artistic talent—specifically, a knack for creating figurines from clay. Veracruz is home to many archaeological sites that date back to hundreds and thousands of years before the arrival of before Christopher Columbus, and the young Lara would often find ancient terra-cotta figurines in the fields and near rivers. He claims that by the time he was 9 years old, he was making versions of these artifacts using clay harvested from a local stream.

As Lara grew older, his skill set expanded. He reportedly taught himself how to prep and oven-fire local clay, and began making objects that mimicked those of several ancient Mesoamerican cultures—imitation Olmec pots, Maya polychrome vessels, and figurines in the Aztec, Mayan, and Totonac styles. He began specializing in replicating works by the Totonacs, a culture that flourished in central Veracruz until the Spanish Conquest introduced diseases that ravaged the communities. These figurines ranged in size from large to tiny, and often depicted mythological gods wearing masks and headdresses.

It's not entirely clear whether Lara began making these figurines for fun or profit. But according to the man himself, traveling dry-goods merchants had noticed his talents before he had even reached his teens. They accepted his "interpretations," as he called his early work, in lieu of cash—then sold them on the black market. Looters also came to Lara, asking him to fix and restore stolen works. Eventually, the artist wound up working in a Mexico City atelier that produced forgeries.

No detail was too tiny for Lara. He visited archaeological sites to study just-dug-up artifacts, and harvested clay from the surrounding region to sculpt exact likenesses. He later told Connoisseur magazine that for true authenticity, he even crafted his own primitive tools and stockpiled 32 grades of cinnabar—a reddish form of mercury used by the Olmec, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that existed between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE—for precise pigmentation. He finished his works with a ancient-looking patina made from cement, lime, hot sugar water, urine, and other ingredients, and coated the final products with a seal made from dirt and glue.

But even though Lara was a stickler for the details, he also took artistic liberties with some of his "interpretations," adding elements that wouldn't have appeared on the original artifacts. Sometimes he would include a fanciful new detail from his imagination: a winged headdress, or one that writhed with serpents; a duck-billed mask, or a dramatic, lifelike pose.

Lara didn't consider himself a forger. "My style was born with me," he told The New York Times in 1987. "I didn't learn from anyone. I studied the pre-Columbian pieces in my town that came from the burial mounds, and I used the ancient techniques. I made these pieces and I am very proud."

But by young adulthood, he'd also become a businessman, selling his unsigned pre-Columbian replicas to middlemen who re-sold them to illegal art collectors both domestically and abroad. "I was aware that many buyers then sold them as authentic pre-Hispanic works," Lara admitted to Art & Antiques magazine years later.

COMING CLEAN

Lara's forgery career may have continued undetected had he and four of his buyers not been apprehended in 1974 and charged with trafficking in pre-Columbian works. The police didn't consider Lara an artist or a forger—his works looked so real, the authorities thought they'd been dug right out of the ground.

Lara was sentenced to 10 years in jail. To regain his freedom, he devised a plan: He asked law enforcement officials to grant his lawyer permission to bring him clay and art tools. Right there in his cell, Lara created replicas of the antiques he'd reportedly stolen. Experts from the INAH examined the earthen artworks, and declared them "genuine" ancient artifacts.

The stunt worked. Lara had proven he had made the works himself, not smuggled them out of ancient sites. Finally convinced of his innocence, prison officials released him in January 1975 after he'd served only seven months of his sentence.

After his release, Alfonso Medellín Zenil, head of the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, offered Lara a job. "Our policy is, when you can't beat them, hire them," Fernando Winfield Capitaine, then the museum's director, joked to Connoisseur.

The Museo de Antropología is home to an extensive collection of artifacts from Mexico's Gulf Coast produced by ancient indigenous peoples such as the Olmec, the Huastec, and the Totonac. Lara was hired to restore these works as well as to make replicas for the museum's gift shop.

But his career as a forger wasn't behind him quite yet.

REVELATIONS AND REFLECTIONS

In the early 1980s, Veracruz governor Agustín Acosta Lagunes began repatriating pre-Columbian works from abroad, expanding the collections at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. But when Lara saw some of these imported works, which had been purchased at Sotheby's auction house in New York City, he pronounced them fakes. He knew, he said, because he'd made many of them—including a figure of a male dancer that had been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s “Ancient Art of Veracruz” exhibit in 1971.

Little by little, it emerged that Lara’s works might have made their way into pre-Columbian art collections around the world, including in prestigious museums such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, as well as in renowned private collections. Lara claimed credit for a 3-foot statue of the Mexican wind god Ehecatl in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and out of approximately 150 works on display in the "Ancient Art of Veracruz" exhibit, asserted that he had made about a dozen.

Among the most notorious fakes Lara claimed to have created were three life-size ceramic sculptures in the Dallas Museum of Art that had once belonged to film director John Huston. "If you look at them closely, they are copies," Lara told the Associated Press in 1987. The works were attributed to the Totonac, and thought to have been made between 600 to 900 CE. Lara, however, claimed to have produced them during the 1950s: "The details are different than the originals … the details in the breast decorations, in the shoulder patches and so on," he said. "They are very different. They are originals of course—my own."

As news spread about Lara’s forgeries, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Met in New York City, and the Dallas Museum of Art responded to the controversy by taking works off display. "All three museums acknowledged that many of the Veracruz-style objects in their collections were problematic," Matthew H. Robb, a former curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum who is now chief curator at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, tells Mental Floss.

Nobody knows exactly how Lara’s creations made their way into American museums (Lara blamed various high-profile art traffickers and dealers), but experts say they noticed when suspicious artifacts resembling his work first began popping up in the 1950s, as pre-Columbian art was becoming more and more popular among American art collectors. "They appeared out of nowhere, resembling nothing previously excavated," Edmund Carpenter, a New York archeologist, told The New York Times. "I saw some in New York, Los Angeles, Paris. Museums bought them, big collectors bought them. But nobody asked, 'How come a big find like this?'"

Bryan Just, a curator and lecturer on pre-Columbian art at the Princeton University Art Museum, chalks the phenomena up to scholarly ignorance. At the time, "there wasn't a lot of material available for comparison," he tells Mental Floss. "There are many regions, including Veracruz … where not a whole lot of archeology had been done. So for a lot of these [new] artworks, there weren't great sources to reference that answered questions like, 'How should this stuff really look?' And at that time, what had been excavated may not have been published."

There was also a shortage of experts to consult because the very idea of pre-Columbian relics as art was still relatively new. Connoisseurs only began collecting and selling these works in the early 20th century, and university scholars didn’t begin offering pre-Columbian art history courses until the 1950s, according to Just.

Not that collectors were necessarily consulting scholars in the first place: "If you were considering work that was offered to you by a dealer, you may have not wanted to consult a colleague who's an expert in that particular area if they work at a collecting institution," Just says. "You know, out of concern that they might snag it up before you do."

Fortunately, modern scholars have access to a greater body of knowledge about pre-Columbian art than their predecessors. "In retrospect, when I see Lara's stuff now, it seems pretty obvious to me that it's wrong," Just says. "It doesn't make sense when you think about it in terms of the broader context of what we know about these particular traditions."

But even today, it isn't always easy to ascertain what's real and what's not when it comes to pre-Columbian art. Experts sometimes use thermoluminescence tests, which involve removing a tiny piece of the object, grinding it up, heating it in a furnace, and observing how much light it emits. Ideally, this process can measure how long ago the clay was fired, but the results can be skewed if a work was recently exposed to extreme heat or had been cleaned.

Another issue is that "lots of these complicated ceramic sculptures are pastiches," Victoria Lyall, a curator of pre-Columbian art at the Denver Art Museum, tells Mental Floss. Artists "will use bits of older sculptures and put them back together. So you have to test a lot of different spots to really get a better sense of whether the entire piece is fake."

X-rays are a good way to spot a composite, but they interfere with thermoluminescence test results, putting conservationists between a rock and a hard place. Furthermore, clays from certain regions—like the clay Lara worked with in Veracruz—reportedly aren't as conducive to thermoluminescence testing.

A LEGACY OF LIES

Lara is now in his mid-70s. He no longer restores antiques at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa full-time, but he still works as a consultant there, and he continues to make art under his own name. However, his legacy will forever be tied with the difficult history of pre-Columbian artwork. According to experts, it's possible that his artworks are still masquerading as artifacts around the world, and that he may have even helped shape modern scholars' perception of pre-Columbian art from Veracruz.

However, it's also feasible that Lara's stories are a composite of fact and fiction—just like his work. The artist claims to have made thousands of forgeries (one estimate places the number at more than 40,000 pieces), but some experts say it would have been nearly impossible for Lara—who was only in his 30s when he was arrested—to have produced so many works in just a few decades.

Plus, the timelines don't always add up: Lara "was about 8 years old at the time that the [Ehecatl statue] was supposedly manufactured and purchased by the Met," Lyall says.

Lara also claims to have been self-taught, but some have speculated that he's stretched the truth about his natural talent. He may have instead learned his trade by apprenticing at a young age in a Veracruz workshop that specialized in forgeries, theorizes Jesse Lerner, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College. Lara "denies all that, but it's hard to know … Just by the nature of his business, it's kind of shady," Lerner tells Mental Floss. (Lerner's 1999 documentary Ruins—a look at the history of Mexican archeology and the traffic in fakes—features an interview with Lara.)

This workshop might have sold both Lara's wares and similar works to international collectors through an established underground market. Such a scenario would explain the artist's familiarity with pieces in faraway collections, like the Met's statue, which he could describe in great detail despite likely having never produced it with his own hands. Because forgeries aren't exactly signed, it's difficult to know for sure which pieces are Lara's and which may have been made by other forgers.

Either way, Lara's frauds are a reminder to avoid believing everything you read—even if it's a label in a museum. And they offer another lesson, too.

"The types of ancient works that Lara and other forgers were imitating, they weren't intended as aesthetic objects," Lerner says. "They weren't for museums. They were representations of this whole world view of cosmic forces."

That makes forgeries like Lara's particularly problematic. "If the only way we can access that worldview is through these objects that survive, [Lara] is just adding bad data to the pool of data that we have available. He's messing up everyone's understanding of who these figures are representing, and how their universe was understood and functioned."

In other words, sometimes fakes don't just fool art lovers—they can also change our understanding of history.

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10 Cold War Artifacts From the Real-Life Bridge of Spies Auction
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U-2 designer Kelly Johnson with Francis Gary Powers (left to right).
U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The 2015 Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies tells the story of a captured U.S. Air Force pilot who was released from Soviet prison in exchange for the freedom of a KGB spy during the Cold War. To mark the 55-year anniversary of that historic prisoner swap, Guernsey’s is auctioning off items that belonged to the real-life military hero Francis Gary Powers.

The artifacts, donated to the auction house by Powers’s son, depict what life was like for an American spy during the Cold War. The Espionage Collection includes gear built for high-altitude covert missions, as well as documents written by Powers during his imprisonment. Here are some of the most fascinating objects going up for bid on October 6 and 7.

1. HIGH-ALTITUDE FLIGHT SUIT

Flight suit used on air force jet.

On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers attempted to fly deeper into Soviet airspace than any U.S. reconnaissance mission had gone before. The U-2 plane was famously shot down and its pilot captured, turning what should have been a covert operation into a historic Cold War pressure point. When the auction opens in October, one lucky bidder will snag a perfect copy of the flight suit Powers wore that day. Never-been-worn, the suit still includes its two intact air hoses, similar to those that kept Powers alive when flying through the upper atmosphere. Similar technology was used to build the gear worn by astronauts and cosmonauts during the space race.

Starting bid: $5000

2. INFLATABLE RAFT

Raft used on military jet.

While the flight suit above was never actually worn by Powers, this raft was likely on board his U-2 with him the day it was shot down in 1960. Experts believe the item was salvaged and displayed in a Soviet museum following the failed reconnaissance mission. After the museum was looted, the raft was allegedly used by local fishermen for years before it was returned to Powers’s family. The flotation device measures 7-by-15-feet folded and features its original plastic inflation tube still bearing old teeth marks.

Starting bid: $750

3. SOVIET PROPAGANDA POSTER

Soviet propaganda poster.

The Bridge of Spies auction features several Soviet Union propaganda posters, including prints of Lady Justice and Vladimir Lenin. This Soviet workers poster, with a gold hammer and sickle against a field of grain, showcases some of the most iconic imagery from the era.

Starting bid: $250

4. FLUID CONTAINMENT VESSEL

Fluid containment vessel used by air force pilots.

When you've got to go, you've got to go—even if you’re a spy in the middle of a top-secret mission thousands of miles above Soviet soil. For long U-2 flights, Powers zipped this container into one of the pockets of his suit and pulled it out when he needed to relieve himself. As the item description reads, “This historic and straightforward piece of equipment proves that smart design can take you great distances.”

Starting bid: $500

5. HOUSE OF UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES BOOKS

Six Cold War-era booklets spread out on a table.

The U.S. government formed the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938 to investigate citizens and organizations with suspected Soviet leanings. These six booklets dictate hearings from the committee in 1960 and outline the “subversive activities of anyone believed to have ties to Communist organizations.” They provide important context for how Cold War tensions manifested in America the year Powers was captured.

Starting bid: $200

6. POWERS’S PRISON JOURNAL

Cover of an old notebook.

Faced with up to 10 years in USSR custody, Gary Powers started teaching himself Russian shortly after he was sentenced. His notebook from that time contains two pages of English words paired with their Russian definitions handwritten in pencil. Despite his status as a prisoner of war, this behavior actually got him into trouble back in the States. Anti-Soviet sentiments were so high at the time that Powers was branded a traitor for daring to learn the language of the enemy. Fortunately this label didn’t last forever, and today he’s considered a military hero.

Starting bid: $750

7. GARY POWERS’S TRENCH COACH

Tan trench coat on a coat hanger.

Nothing says “spy” like a good, vintage trench coat. This tan London Towne jacket worn by Powers in the 1960s was originally made for Army officers. The durable cotton garment features one visible button at the neck and four concealed lower buttons for a sleek, mysterious look.

Starting bid: $600

8. FALLOUT FORECAST MAP OF THE U.S.

Map of the U.S. framed behind glass.

Nuclear conflict wasn’t just a vague threat for many Americans during the Cold War—it was an imminent reality they needed to prepare for. This atmosphere of terror produced such items as this nuclear fallout map, published by the District of Columbia Office of Civil Defense in 1960. The 28.5-by-40.5-inch map depicts the contiguous United States with the longitude and latitude points of potential radioactive decay.

Starting bid: $200

9. PIECE OF THE IRON CURTAIN

A section of lattice iron fencing.

In addition to being one of the most powerful metaphors of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain was also a literal barrier that divided Eastern and Western Europe in some rural parts of the continent. This rare 11-by-16-inch patch of iron fencing shows the welded design that prevented many Eastern Europeans from escaping Communist rule from the late 1940s to 1991.

Starting bid: $350

10. A LETTER FROM POWERS TO HIS WIFE

Pages of a letter and a postcard.

Powers wrote a letter to his wife Barbara on December 13, 1960, seven months after his capture. He wrote of his condition in the facility as well as his outlook on his situation. "As long as I do not lose hope everything will be alright,” he said. “I haven't lost hope yet." He was also interested in the new president-elect John F. Kennedy, who would come to have a major impact on the Cold War following his inauguration in 1961. Powers wrote: "Would you send me a copy of Kennedy's inauguration speech and any other statements he makes. I am very interested in what his views are and especially what his foreign policy will be..." As well as giving insight into Powers’s state of mind during this time, the document is also a Russian artifact, sporting full-color Soviet-era stamps.

Starting bid: $1500

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