From The Writers' Room Featuring False Idols

Can You Spot the Fakes? Art Relics in False Idols

In Episode Four, “Stolen Treasures,” Layla has crossed over from undercover agent/investigator to family friend of the Rothkopfs. “Volunteering” at the Rothkopf Gallery puts her in close proximity to suspected illicit art relics dealer Bennett and to his son James. She is starting to wrestle with the repercussions of letting things get so personal. Both Bennett and James are opening up to her – about their upbringings and their ambitions. She’s remained cagey about her own. But she is consistently betraying these people she’s come to care for. She’s used James’s information about his dad’s gambling habit to unearth a likely motive for Bennett to engage in black market art deals. And she’s turned up a pretty incriminating accounting book by snooping in Bennett’s office.

While she’s excavating some of the Rothkopf’s personal stories, she’s also learning more about the art relics they work with, as well as the art relics that are hot on the collectors’ market. Layla believes every relic has a story. Understanding the history of certain items can help point her and Pierce in the right direction on the money trail to the Muharib.

Describing and telling stories about art relics was something I really enjoyed while writing False Idols, especially in Episode Four, where art relics abound.

Our entire team delved deeply into real-life accounts of relic running and art trafficking before and during our writing. We scoured books like The Medici Conspiracy, Chasing Aphrodite, Loot, and Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures (the last title by our own series consultant, Robert Wittman).

The research was constant – and evolving, as several stories gained currency and hit the news right in the midst of our writing. (One such story was the scandal involving Hobby Lobby’s alleged smuggling of Iraqi religious artifacts; you can read more about that here). It was helpful and validating, but also incredibly sobering, to realize how many real-life accounts there are about looted, stolen, and smuggled artifacts. This is an ongoing global crisis. History is pillaged, bought and sold on the black market, and often lost forever.

The work of real-life FBI agents like Robert Wittman offered a hopeful counterbalance to this deluge of information about black market relics. It was heartening to realize there are people working hard to recover stolen artifacts and stolen histories. But the work is ongoing. Layla, as an undercover agent, and Pierce, as her FBI handler, are expressly involved in this endeavor. That makes Layla’s conflicting loyalties all the more troubling to her.

Some of our extensive research on art relics did made its way into the story at various points, or served as strong inspiration for fictitious scenarios. Other relics were completely invented – either because that made for more convenient storytelling, or because investigations are ongoing, which makes descriptions of actual stolen objects hard to fictionalize.

Part of Layla and Pierce’s work involves sniffing out fake relics. This is because, quite often, real relics are packaged with or disguised as fake ones to get them across borders and into the hands of collectors. So I thought for fun today, I’d offer up a little challenge with some of the art relics mentioned in Episode Four (and one from Three). Ready? Here we go!

The “Stolen Treasures” fundraiser Layla attends at the Egyptian Museum mentions twenty-five relics that were stolen and “returned” by the thieves.

Answer: Fact! (Sort of).
In January 2011, during a political uprising in Cairo, police left Tahrir Square – which left the museum vulnerable. Thieves broke in and took 54 relics. Unable to sell some on the black market – the artifacts were too well-known perhaps – they chose 25 to return. They did so quite unceremoniously: by bagging them up and throwing them on the museum roof. The rest are still missing.

Here I took a fictional liberty, and imagined that ten more items had since been returned and were in need of restoration; hence this fundraiser.

At the fundraiser, Layla meets Italian journalist Alberto Rossi, who is investigating the looted Faiyum relics. These relics were stolen from a small museum in a town called Faiyum. The stolen collection included a number of extremely rare scarab amulets, believed to bring good fortune upon the wearer because they came from a group of magicians and healers called the Amulet Men of Faiyum.

Answer: Fake! (mostly)
Faiyum does exist. It’s a small city about 60 miles south of Cairo, in the Faiyum Oasis. Though there are some small archaeological museums there, The Faiyum Museum does not exist. The Faiyum Relics are completely fictitious, including the collection of amulets. The famed scholar Dr. Katherine Danforth? Fake! I made her up to help legitimize the provenance of these amulets. However, there were professional “Amulet Men” in ancient Egypt. They were magicians, and also healers – perhaps even physicians, as magic and science were closely entwined. Amulets were believed to have special powers (for protection, fertility, healing, etc.), and Amulet Men would be called upon to help select the right ones for people to wear. I imagined a group of Amulet Men specific to the Faiyum region, who gave these scarab amulets extra special powers. One of the articles I consulted was this one from the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. (Any truth-bending or factual errors are entirely my own).

In Episode Three, Layla purchases an ancient bronze cat statuette from Bennett Rothkopf. She needs to purchase something to establish her credibility as a collector. She was hoping to buy something outside of his regular showroom, to set him up, but he didn’t take the bait – or, possibly, he was too wary of her motives at the time. So he sold her a “safe” object. The cat wears hoop earrings. It is 2,500 years old. And a lot of its value is connected to its unusual provenance: it was once owned by Howard Carter, the British archaeologist who discovered the entrance to King Tut’s tomb. How cool is that?

Answer: Fake!
This statuette is a composite based on similar-looking cat statuettes. Egyptians revered cats and made many works of art in their image. They often did wear hoop earrings. (The statues – not the cats. I think). In the context of the story, it’s real, not a fake at all. But the provenance, the connection to Howard Carter? That came straight out of my head.

In a similar manner, other relics that get brief mention (such as some Coptic icons, and a flask) are composites of images and histories of many similar objects that I found on various websites, sold by legitimate galleries. Fabrication was easy for those less complex pieces. I found materials, eras, regions, price ranges, distinctive features, and then mixed some up and added a few new details. Voila: fake relics on the page.

It was fun to invent and fictionalize relics, and meaningful to the story as Layla’s quest involves not only following the money trail of illicit relics but also excavating her own authentic self from beneath all her other layers. In Episode Four, she’s a little bit closer to achieving that goal, but she still has a long way to go.

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