According to the dictionary (Shorter Oxford) authentic means: Of undisputed origin, genuine; made or done in the original or traditional way or in a way that faithfully resembles an original. Taking these disparate definitions apart, certain characteristics emerge. Firstly the object or action has to be genuine - as opposed to fake. If it is not genuine, but is made in a traditional way it may also be classified as authentic. This can be read in part as a prima facie division between fine arts and craftsmanship. Thus a copied Rothko is not authentic one because the definition in that case would include that it be painted by Rothko himself, or at the very least under his personal supervision. It would not be sufficient that one of his students painted it.





In the second case, it would seem to suggest that an African mask, a Mayan huipile or a Sheraton chair are genuine if they are made in the traditional way. Ethnologist and antique dealers might well disagree arguing that it is not only the object itself, who makes it and how it is made which are the determining factors but that the category “authentic” has much to do with the (hi)story of the object as well, the chronological element and the object’s cultural use. Thus it is important to the ethnologist that African mask he purchases for the museum is authentic and not a modern tourist copy. It is important for the modern Aztecs who are claiming Montezuma’s headdress from the Völkerkunde Museum in Vienna that it is authentic. And it is important to the connoisseur that the dining chairs he has just paid for are really Sheraton. But what if the mask was never used, the headdress, though old, is not actually from Montezuma and no-one has ever been able to unequivocally identify a single piece of furniture from the famous designer himself?


If an ethnological team purchases ancient church paintings-in dubious circumstances or otherwise-replacing them with copies which remain in place for the next century, are the copies authentic because they have been integrated into the local church services in the same way an African mask is danced? Does the passing of time authenticate objects originally classified as inauthentic? Could they now be (again) removed and placed in a museum? A practical example is to be found in the decorated pots made by the Mangbetu people in northern Zaire. Pot design includes depictions of rulers from the 1870s. But, as Roy points out, “... the Mangbetu people did not begin to fashion pots in the shape of human heads until about the turn of the century when they were probably made expressly to see to sell to European colonials and tourists to acquire cash with which the Mangbetu could pay their taxes. Eventually the type came to be adopted by the Mangbetu, along with a whole series of figurative carved objects, as expressions of personal status, wealth and good taste.” Thus a cultural market stimulated mercantile interests to the production of exotic souvenirs slowly becomes traditional and a symbol of (African) status for the producers.





What, then, is the opposite of authentic? Fake? Where is the boundary?

“... a detail of Chinese art history shows how complicated even the distinction between ‘fakes’ and ‘authentic works’ can be.Some Chinese paintings are executed on paper made from mulberry bark, which has two very thin layers... like Kleenex or toilet paper - so thin that a skilful hand can apparently peel them apart and produce two essentially identical paintings out of one. Which one’s the original? Or can you have two originals?”