Brigido Lara, the Artist Whose Pre-Columbian Fakes Fooled Museums Around the World

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iStock

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.

This Wall Chart Shows Almost 130 Species of Shark—All Drawn to Scale

Pop Chart Lab
Pop Chart Lab

Shark Week may be over, but who says you can’t celebrate sharp-toothed predators year-round? Pop Chart Lab has released a new wall print featuring nearly 130 species of selachimorpha, a taxonomic superorder of fish that includes all sharks.

The shark chart
Pop Chart Lab

Called “The Spectacular Survey of Sharks,” the chart lists each shark by its family classification, order, and superorder. An evolutionary timeline is also included in the top corner to provide some context for how many millions of years old some of these creatures are. The sharks are drawn to scale, from the large but friendly whale shark down to the little ninja lanternsharka species that lives in the deep ocean, glows in the dark, and wasn’t discovered until 2015.

You’ll find the popular great white, of course, as well as rare and elusive species like the megamouth, which has been spotted fewer than 100 times. This is just a sampling, though. According to World Atlas, there are more than 440 known species of shark—plus some that probably haven't been discovered yet.

The wall chart, priced at $29 for an 18” x 24” print, can be pre-ordered on Pop Chart Lab’s website. Shipping begins on August 27.

8 Things You Might Not Know About the Louvre

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

It might be the most iconic art museum in the world. Located in Paris, the Louvre (officially the Musée du Louvre) has admitted thousands of cultural artifacts and millions of admirers since opening its doors on this day in 1793. A guided tour is always best, but if you can’t make it to the Right Bank of the Seine, check out these eight facts about the 225-year-old landmark’s past, present, and future.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A CASTLE FORTRESS.

Before French King Philip II left for the Crusades in 1190, he ordered the fortification of the Seine area along the western border of Paris against any antagonists. Crowning the structure was a castle that featured a moat and defensive towers; it also housed a prison for undesirables. Over time, other construction urbanized the area, reducing the need for a combat-ready tower. In the 1500s, King Francis I built his residence on the same site. An art lover, Francis’s home and its collection of pieces hinted at what the Louvre would eventually become. In 1793, part of the Louvre became a public museum.

2. IT BECAME AN ARTIST RETREAT.

Before art was on open display for public consumption, the Louvre invited artists to stay and work on site and treat the building like a creative retreat. In 1608, Henri IV began offering artists both studio and living space in the Louvre. They could sculpt, paint, and generally do as they wished—but by the 18th century, the surplus of distinguished squatters had left the property a bit of a mess, and their residency was eventually phased out.

3. NAPOLEON RENAMED IT AFTER HIMSELF.

Crowned emperor in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t above a little self-glorification. Having spearheaded the transformation of the Louvre from a cultural hub to his own tributary, he had the name changed to the Musée Napoléon and hung the Mona Lisa in his bedroom. The banner lasted until his defeat in 1815.

4. AN ARTIST MADE ITS FAMED PYRAMID VANISH.

In a move right out of David Copperfield’s playbook, in 2016 French artist JR was able to execute an impressive optical illusion using the three-story glass pyramid that sits outside the front of the Louvre. The surface was pasted with black-and-white photographs of surrounding buildings, making it seem like the construct had disappeared entirely. The performance piece was left up for about a month.

5. THE MONA LISA WAS SWIPED FROM IT.

Art heists in movies are typically pretty glamorous affairs, with gentlemen thieves and Swiss-watch planning. But when crooks lifted the Mona Lisa from its perch in the Louvre in 1911, it was a fairly indelicate operation. Three Italian handymen hid in the museum overnight, then removed the painting from the wall and bid a retreat out the door in full view of the public. One of them tried selling it over two years later, but a suspicious dealer phoned police. The ensuing media coverage is thought to be one of the reasons the painting has become one of the most famous in the world.

6. IT ONCE CLOSED BECAUSE OF PICKPOCKETS.

In 2013, nearly half of the museum’s 450 employees refused to come to work because of a nagging pest on the premises: pickpockets. Employees said that the adolescent criminals—admission is free for those under 18—distracted and robbed American tourists and showed only disdain for Louvre workers who tried to intervene. Authorities agreed to increase security measures, and the workers returned to their posts.

7. IT HAS RESIDENT “COPYISTS.”

Few museums sanction forgeries of any type, but the Louvre recognizes the curious subculture of artists who enjoy trying to replicate famous works. Every day from 9:30 to 1:30, “copyists” are allowed to set up easels and study paintings while working on their own replicas. The appeal for the artists is to try to gain insight into the process behind masterpieces; the museum insists that the canvas size not be exactly the same, and that they’re not signed.

8. AN APP CAN HELP YOU FIND AN EXIT.

With more than 8 million visitors annually, the Louvre can often feel congested to tourists unfamiliar with its layout. In 2016, the museum began offering an app that guides users around, offering them a pre-planned tour or an exit strategy. Lost? Hang a left at the Picasso, then a right at the Michelangelo.

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