Last month, the Obama administration gave Iranian President Hassan Rouhani a silver drinking cup in the shape of a winged griffin that was reported to be worth more than a million dollars as “a special gift” for the Iranian people, an item which at least two archaeology experts believe is likely a fake.
The State Department on September 25th described the piece on its “Virtual Embassy Tehran” web page as a 2,700-year-old artifact, calling it a “7th century BC silver griffin-shaped ceremonial drinking vessel” which was most likely “looted from a cave in northwestern Iran.”
“It is considered the premier griffin of antiquity, a gift of the Iranian people to the world, and the United States is pleased to return it to the people of Iran,” the State Department wrote.
“There’s only one problem: It’s a fake,” reveals Alex Joffe, an archaeologist and historian writing in Tablet. “Not only is it a fake, it’s a bad fake.”
It appears the State Department was millennia off in its dating of the artifact. According to Joffe, it’s not 2,700-years-old, rather only 14. He writes (emphasis added):
A definitive publication by retired Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Oscar White Muscarella clearly demonstrates that what is alleged by even the U.S. State Department to be a 2,700-year-old artifact from Iran is actually a modern fake, dating back to, at the earliest, 1999. The griffin was first seen in Geneva in the gallery of prominent Iranian art dealers and in 2002 was purchased by a wealthy New York collector, who not coincidentally was a trustee of the Met. Not confident about the artifact’s bona fides, the collector asked the dealers to provide authentication. Three experts were produced who promptly attested that the object had been produced in western Iran and dated to ca. 700 B.C.E.
Then the search for the artifact’s provenance took a dramatic turn. Homeland Security arrested one of the Iranian-Swiss dealers on charges of falsifying the griffin’s place of origin as having come from Syria, not Iran.
The drinking vessel was confiscated and placed in a Homeland Security warehouse in New York.
“While the artifact was inaccessible to scholars and other investigators, a single photograph made available to Muscarella convinced him that it was a fake. Indeed, anyone with passing familiarity with ancient Near Eastern art, or any kind of art, would become suspicious at the merest glance,” writes Joffe.
Muscarella detailed the problem that raised his suspicions in the article to which Tablet linked: “Recently surfaced, a silver forgery of a griffin is generously equipped with three funnels, one in an unsuitable place for an ancient object, but appropriate in the modern world. It is a failed attempt by its modern creator to make it look ancient Iranian…he did succeed, however in making it look modern Iranian.”
Joffe explains that the positioning of the funnels – two emerging from the sides and one sticking out of the creature’s derriere – “has no parallels in the ancient world.”
“It looks crude and absurd and should have led the buyer to ask what sort of nonsense was being pushed on her,” Joffe writes.
The art world is teeming with forgeries, a trend unlikely stop as long as art and antiquities dealing continue to be profitable. “Gullibility is an essential human instinct. We want to believe, sometimes so badly that we close our eyes to just how fake or stolen an artifact is,” writes Joffe.
Which leads archaeologist Joffe to posit whether the griffin is “as fake as the thawing” in U.S.-Iranian relations.