Jim Sanborn, installation view of “Without Provenance: The Making of Contemporary Antiquity,” 2018. Photo: Greg Staley

Jim Sanborn

Washington, DC

American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center

Best known for his challenging, coded bronze work in the courtyard of the CIA, Jim Sanborn still relishes secrets. His recent exhibition, “Without Provenance: The Making of Contemporary Antiquity,” presented a new puzzle: Why fill the museum’s third floor with an “auction preview” of stone works from “ancient Khmer?” Apparently authentic, these finds included Hindu and Buddhist deities, heads without torsos, torsos without heads, and a row of bases retaining their pairs of sandstone feet.

It didn’t take long for this dramatic installation to reveal its true, i.e., faux, nature. With prankster’s delight, Sanborn created a wall text for each object, in addition to a catalogue page with Sotheby’s-like language and format. Dimensions, materials, period styles, and prices were straightforward. Descriptive texts and provenances, however, contained suspicious, often comic details. For example, works had surfaced from a Thai massage parlor, the bonnet of a governor’s car, an IRS warehouse, the estate of an erotica-collecting French viscountess, the Chechen Republic (reunification of parts unlikely), and a Pyongyang restaurant (consigned by Kim Jong-Un “for the benefit of the Republic”).

Long before Sanborn made his first of several trips to Cambodia, criminal looting had desecrated Angkor’s temples and generated a profitable industry making works exquisite enough to fool museum curators and antiquities connoisseurs. In 2012, he gained access to a Siem Reap forgery workshop by enlisting archaeologist Martin Pilkinghorne to accompany him and pose as a wealthy collector interested in “genuine” sculptures. The men saw statuary in progress and objects “aging” in nitric acid baths—forgeries so authentic they could bring extraordinary prices in the global art market. Unlike roadside vendors with their rough, discernible fakery, a few artisan families work with knowledge of auction catalogues and published research. Masters and their apprentices outwit clients by making slight variations to period designs or infusing surfaces with manganese (only recently found by testing authentic pieces).

Fascinated by the science, Sanborn envisioned a U.S. exhibition of clearly identified forgeries, carved by Cambodians and “aged” by him. To that end, he commissioned expert carvers to create works based on photographs of authenticated pieces at Paris’s Guimet Museum. He videotaped the carving process to ensure that his exports, freshly carved stones, would not be classified as antiquities. Then he began years of trial and error in his studio as he attempted to achieve the microscopic look of archaic surfaces—from sandblasting and polishing with sandpaper and diamond pads to coloring with black stains, iron chloride, sumi ink, and natural dyes. To duplicate centuries of weathering, Sanborn experimented with a phosphoric acid spray that successfully penetrated the stone by capillary action. This less toxic process, he believes, may have already been adopted by savvy forgers.

Sanborn came to this project with a longtime interest in archaeology, informed by a college degree and a British sojourn spotting prehistoric structures from the air. More recently, he “seeded” a site known to hold Native American artifacts, burying 10,000 replica arrowheads for visitors to excavate at Maryland’s Indian Run Park.

In “Without Provenance,” homage by simulation took on a grander scale, born of Sanborn’s admiration of the Khmer aesthetic and his provocative embrace of “gifted copyists.” While fully disclosing fakery and regretting cultural loss, this exhibition seemed less sympathetic to the market disruptions posed by copies. Are the reproductions less aesthetically rewarding than the originals? If not, what is the rationale, in visual terms, for assigning more monetary value to the genuine objects? With such questions, Sanborn reveals himself as an ontological trouble-maker in the tradition of Warhol and Johns, poking mind-bending fun at the conventions of value and artistry.