Faux Friday: The Tell-Tale Signs

May 21, 2010

There are many tell-tale signs of a forgery. By “forgery”, I mean a piece that was constructed in order to dupe the collector into buying what they perceive to be an authentic piece. However, by gaining knowledge (through this website and other sources) about styles, art and fashion that are relevant to mourning and sentimental history, the collector will soon be able to analyse and judge a wide variety of pieces.

While a general knowledge of different styles and periods is necessary before analysing pieces, the construction of jewellery is the area where a true forgery may be spotted, or at least its provenance called into doubt.

Late 17th Century Memento Mori RingFirstly, let’s look at the terminology that may be used. Memento mori is one of the most commonly used terms that can make a seller quite a lot of money very fast. These early styles of mourning jewellery command a hefty premium due to their symbolism. Why is this? The ever increasing popularity of the skull and crossbones, the skeleton, cherubs, scythe, all these timeless representations of death and memorials will always be marketable and it doesn’t take much to convince someone to buy them. Simply putting the terms memento mori and mourning in the same sentence will pique the curiosity of even the non-collector.

Let’s look at the history of it. Memento mori did not start off as strictly mourning, it was a statement of living and final judgement. There was a philosophy behind it, but as the mourning industry took flight and greater social mobility allowed mourning paraphernalia, the marriage of these funeralia symbols and fashion was only inevitable.

So on the whole of it, we have two different kinds of memento mori jewellery moving from the 1400s to the 1600s, earlier pieces (are they the prototype or a different thing altogether?) may be considered what is pure. But then again, that would invalidate what is popularly considered memento mori jewellery during the 17th and 18th centuries!Early 19th Century Memento Mori Skull Ring

The skull and crossbones motif continued even when it was out of popular fashion in jewellery and is considered an anachronism. Pieces from 1760 onward (after the advent of the neoclassical movement) are still prevalent, as this was and is considered a standard funerary motif.

Then there are the various memento mori revivals, which try to re-spark the philosophy of the earlier period. Revivals and reproductions of 16th and 17th jewellery were also quite popular across Europe in the 19th century and it’s quite easy to be fooled by some pieces. Combine this with the various fraternal and ‘secret’ organisations of the period that used the skull as a motif and you’ve got a great deal of items that can cause a lot of head-scratching and critique.

Memento Mori 19th Century Revival Walking StickBut, are these pieces all considered fake? It’s the terminology of the modern seller than can cause that kind of reaction. Lack of knowledge by a seller can turn a very respectable 19th century piece into something that may irritate the collector. The genuine forgery is the one that tries to copy a piece or mimic a style exactly under the pretence of subterfuge and deceit.

So, when you’re looking at a piece, be sure to critique it for its merits and when it doubt, question everything!

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