Last year, when art and art history professor Elizabeth Marlowe (second from left, with laser pointer) stumbled across 20 limestone reliefs deep in the holdings of the Picker Art Gallery, a mystery unfolded. She and her ARTS 481 students have been trying to determine the age and authenticity of the objects — and the circumstances under which they might have left Egypt.


Every art history professor loves teaching with actual objects rather than slides, but as a specialist in ancient art, I am not often able to do so. The pre-modern holdings of the Picker Art Gallery are notoriously slim, so one day last year it was with little enthusiasm — and only a few minutes before lunchtime — that I sat down to make sure that there was indeed nothing in the gallery’s database of 11,000 objects that would be relevant to the 200-level Medieval Art course I’d be teaching the coming fall. In my pessimism, I entered the broadest possible search terms, asking the database for anything in the collection from the year 1 to 1500, from newest to oldest. The first couple of results were what I was expecting: ephemera such as loose manuscript pages and coins of little relevance to the topics I’d be covering. But then I scrolled down — and forgot all about my lunch.

    Appearing on the screen was a long series of limestone sculptural reliefs, dated to the period between 200 and 600 CE — a little early for my medieval class, but of great interest to me as a scholar of Roman art. What were these things? Around 2 feet long and 10 inches tall, most of the 20 or so reliefs depicted animals such as birds, deer, and lions frolicking among swirling vine scrolls, or against an unadorned background, flanked by heaping baskets of bread. Such classical iconography is more typical of works created by Greek and Roman artists between 500 BCE and 500 CE than the dates cited. From what I could tell on the database’s thumbnail images, the style of the carving suggested a date toward the later end of that range. The sculptors of these reliefs were clearly more interested in surface patterning, sharp contrasts between light and dark, and quick sketches of the animal forms than they were in a finely detailed, naturalistic portrayal of living creatures such as one would find in earlier, high classical styles.
    The mystery deepened when I noticed that the database labeled the reliefs as “Coptic,” a term that refers to the Christian communities of Egypt, but which scholars used to apply more broadly to anything from Egypt from the period between the decline of the Roman Empire beginning around 200 CE and the rise of Islam around 600 CE. (Scholars today prefer the term “late antique Egyptian” for such material if it lacks explicitly Christian content.) The database also noted that the whole group had been given to the Picker by alumnus Herbert Mayer ’29 as part of a large collection of mostly 20th-century art. The accession numbers suggested that three of the reliefs had entered the collection in 1966, while the rest came later, in 1982.
    I began asking around, and the only person at Colgate who was aware of these objects, which were deep in museum storage, was art history professor Mary Ann Calo. Calo had extensively researched Mayer’s history while curating a 2011 Picker exhibition of some of the modern works from his collection, so she was able to offer a number of leads. She knew that Mayer had traveled to Egypt in the early 1960s; that despite his gallery’s focus on contemporary art, he was fascinated by Coptic art; and that he had exhibited a number of Coptic works both there and in a small show he’d organized at Colgate in 1960. Calo also hypothesized that this particular group of reliefs might have had something to do with a short-lived business venture Mayer had run on the side called Sculptura, which produced high-quality bronze casts of ancient sculpture from around the world (see sidebar on pg. 39).
    I was deeply intrigued. I also felt a strong urge to advocate on behalf of this neglected group of ancient sculptures. They deserved to be brought out of storage, studied, displayed, and celebrated. I was fascinated by the questions these objects presented. Some had to do with their late 20th-century history: Why did Mayer purchase them? Had anything ever been done with them here? I also wondered about their ancient history: When and where were they made? How had they been displayed in antiquity? What did their imagery signify in their ancient context?
    At the top of my list, however, was a set of questions that mark the intersection between these reliefs’ ancient and modern histories: From whom did Mayer purchase them? Where did that dealer get them? Did the person who found them in the ground recover them all at a single site; if so, where? Trained archaeologists know how valuable such information is, because that is usually the primary means by which an artwork’s ancient significance can be reconstructed. Archaeologists also know how to extract as much data as possible from their dig sites — information that, in turn, informs our reading of any works of art found there. Our understanding of these particular reliefs, for example, would change tremendously depending on whether they were created for the tomb of a 6th-century Christian, the walls of a 3rd-century temple to Hercules, or the home of a wealthy 4th-century aristocrat.
    Unfortunately, that kind of contextual data is rarely preserved when ancient sites are ransacked for the purpose of finding beautiful treasures to sell on the art market. Once an object’s association with a particular site is severed, that information can never be recovered. In an effort to prevent the destruction of the historical record and to protect their heritage, many countries require all discoveries of archaeological material to be reported to state authorities, and, in the hope of deterring looting, prohibit the export of objects of cultural property.
    In any market where demand exceeds supply, creative entrepreneurs will find ways to fill the gap and satisfy customers’ desires. Ancient art is no exception, and the field of late antique Egyptian art is particularly sketchy. The market is rife with forgeries, and buyers must be hypervigilant. In fact, every major museum and private collection in the world has made its share of mistakes. The strong, simple outlines of typical forms and the expressive content appealed to collectors in the post-war period, and the market in Coptic sculpture boomed between 1950 and 1970. But by the 1980s, many of the works that had flooded the market during that period began to raise suspicions. In 2009, the Brooklyn Museum organized a whole exhibition frankly revealing a number of its own purchases as forgeries. Herbert Mayer’s buying spree in Cairo in the early 1960s falls squarely within the period of this inflated, treacherous market.
    So, my desire to learn where the Picker’s newly rediscovered limestone reliefs came from stemmed not only from my interest in their ancient context, but also because that information would be critical to learning whether they are authentic.
     Work began in the summer of 2011 on several fronts. Picker director Linn Underhill worked together with the gallery’s registrar, Sarisha Guarneiri, and Patricia Jue, a chemistry lab instructor at Colgate, to remove the works from their inadequate storage and provide them with state-of-the-art preservation cases. Jue also analyzed samples of the stone under a microscope to assess their physical condition, which, it turned out, varied widely from relief to relief. She was able to determine that the limestone was not of the type commonly used for forgeries in the 1960s, which, while not definitive proof of the reliefs’ authenticity, was at least a good sign.

    I also showed photographs of the reliefs to the world’s leading scholar of late antique Egyptian sculpture, Professor Thelma Thomas at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Thomas thought their style and iconography was consistent with that of sculptures produced in the 4th and 5th centuries at Oxyrhynchus, considered the most important archaeological site for late antique Egyptian art — more encouraging news.
    Then, I got students involved. This past spring, I offered a new seminar, ARTS 481, Late Antique Egyptian Reliefs in the Picker Art Gallery, in which 16 undergraduates embarked on groundbreaking research on these works. We began with readings on topics such as late antique Egypt, looting, and forgery. We heard guest lectures: by Jue on the chemistry of the limestone, and by art history professor Padma Kaimal, whose new book focuses on looted and dispersed ancient Indian sculptures. Carol Ann Lorenz, curator of Colgate’s Longyear Museum of Anthropology, spoke to us about the special considerations that go into curating on-campus exhibitions (a long-term goal for these reliefs).
    We then spent several weeks looking closely at the reliefs one by one, led in each discussion by a student who had written a 200-word catalogue entry on the work in question. The class worked together, sharing ideas, editing prose, and making connections across the corpus of reliefs. In the process, we were able to identify a number of links among them — both of whole objects (we spotted a couple of pairs whose broken edges miraculously fit right into one another), and of recurring iconographic motifs, such as that of the backward-facing, galloping animal.
    The students also took on individual research topics, from a detailed examination of the reliefs’ iconography, tracking down comparable works of late antique Egyptian sculpture, and the history and theory of connoisseurship (the dating and attribution of undocumented artworks based on stylistic comparisons to other works), to the use of scientific tests to determine authenticity, a proposal for how the Picker might one day display the reliefs, and an assessment of a group of late antique Egyptian textiles also included in Mayer’s bequest.
    Some of the students used their spring break to conduct research in archives or other museums. Caroline Lee ’13 went to the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C., to sift through Mayer’s papers for information about his buying and selling of Coptic sculpture. Eliza Graham ’14 interviewed the curator of the Brooklyn Museum exhibition on Coptic forgeries. Carter Cooper ’13 corresponded with the antiquities dealership that had sold the reliefs to Mayer, while Ashlee Eve ’14 interviewed a Colgate alumnus, Jack Blanchard ’60, who had participated in Mayer’s Sculptura business.
    The result of all this research is a clearer picture of where these objects probably came from, as well as when, where, and how they were acquired by Mayer. It is very likely that at least six, and possibly all 20, were purchased on a buying trip to Cairo in 1961, despite their consignment to Colgate in two separate batches more than a decade apart. Mayer displayed four works from that trip in a small exhibit of “Coptic” art at his World House Galleries in May and June of 1962, three of which he then donated to Colgate in 1966. The Khawam Brothers, who sold the pieces to Mayer, have records indicating that they obtained them from a middleman in Oxyrhynchus — information that dovetails quite pleasingly with Thelma Thomas’s hypothesis, based strictly on stylistic evidence, that the reliefs came from that very site. The iconography of the reliefs suggests that their original setting was most likely funerary.
    On the other hand, the ultimate conclusion to which the students kept returning is that very little about these reliefs can ever be determined with absolute certainty. This includes the fundamental question of their authenticity. Not all of the experts we spoke to shared Thomas’s optimistic assessment. Unfortunately, no scientific test exists that could resolve the matter once and for all. Certain tests might be able to identify the quarry where the limestone was obtained, or date the pigment that was added to some of the reliefs’ details, but there is no way to determine the date of the carving. As for hypotheses about the reliefs’ origins based on comparisons to works from tombs at Oxyrhynchus, this evidence is less solid than one might hope. The material from that site represents only a tiny fraction of all known late antique relief sculpture, the vast majority of which surfaced on the art market and is therefore of unknown provenance. Comparisons based on such a small portion of the evidence must be handled with caution. The dealer’s information about Oxyrhynchus must also be taken with a grain of salt; it is quite possible that the name was offered by middlemen simply to enhance the legitimacy — and price — of their wares.
    Several aspects of our reliefs offer clues to the degree of destruction that their removal from their ancient setting must have entailed. We noticed, for example, a clear and suspicious pattern in their composition and size. Reliefs of this type in antiquity were part of long, continuous architectural friezes (ornamental bands) adorning interior or exterior walls. But despite once belonging to larger arrangements, each of our blocks consists of an elegant, balanced composition in and of itself — a pair of animals looking at one another across a swirl of foliage, or an animal flanked perfectly on either side by a basket of bread. Each one features at least one animal, and few show any significant damage to their sculpted forms or upper or lower edges. They hardly look, in other words, like accidentally broken architectural fragments pulled from the rubble of a collapsed ancient building. Rather, they appear to have been carefully hacked out of some still-standing, original setting, in highly marketable, aesthetically pleasing, easily transportable chunks.
    We are left to wonder what the original ensemble(s) might have looked like, and whether the whole might have equalled more than the sum of its parts. Some of our reliefs, for example, depict predator and prey, while others show happier interactions between pairs of animals; one even appears to depict a mother with her young. Were these different types of pairings arranged in any particular, meaningful order on the walls of, say, the tomb they originally adorned? Did the overarching composition convey any larger, eschatological message about the cycle of life and death? We will never know.
    Despite all of these unanswerable questions, the students learned a great deal. First and foremost, they experienced the thrill of doing original research on primary source material that had never been studied before, where every discovery they made, every connection between seemingly unrelated data, represented a tangible gain in our knowledge. They learned about a variety of tools — archival documents, excavation records, newspaper reports, stylistic analysis, iconography, chemical tests — that are available to scholars attempting to reconstruct the past based on fragmentary material sources. They also witnessed the limitations of each of those tools, especially when used in isolation. Finally, they came to appreciate why, in the world of antiquities, the interests of the art market are often at odds with those of the historical record.
    The semester culminated in a series of presentations on their research topics, and the fruits of their labors can now be found on a massive website which also serves as an introduction of these important objects to the wider scholarly and art-loving community.
    In addition to the students’ experience in this seminar, I learned something myself: how exciting and productive the classroom can be when I simply pose a few questions, whose answers I do not already know, about a large amount of primary material, and then let the students tackle it from a variety of standpoints. This teaching method, which requires ceding much of the control and authority I usually try to maintain, was unsettling at times, but the outcome it yielded, both in terms of actual knowledge produced and student investment in their own learning, far exceeded what I’d thought was possible.

All caption and callout information was drawn from the students’ catalogue entries and research essays. Photos of reliefs by Linn Underhill. Check out the entire project site at

One of the important lessons of this course was that, for art historians, there are often no hard-and-fast answers. What follows are excerpts from some of the toughest nuts Marlowe's class tried to crack.

An ethical dilemma
Testing and removing samples brings up an ethical dilemma. “Testing pigment would require removing samples from the objects. Since there is very little pigment on most of the objects, and much may be original, I believe it would be imprudent to remove any pigment until we have a very good idea of the value of the objects” (Patricia Jue, Chemistry Department). We are afraid to ruin the value of these objects by removing samples, but the value of our reliefs is very little if we do not know their history.
—Jamie Dal Lago ’13, from her research report on the use of science in determining value

The challenge of connoisseurship

Since no other methods of authentication can be used on our reliefs, we are reliant on connoisseurship, at least for the present, to determine their authenticity. As a result, two members of our class each interviewed a leading scholar in the field on his or her opinion of the authenticity of our reliefs. Unfortunately, these two scholars possess conflicting opinions on the subject. One scholar is an associate professor at a major U.S. university, and the other works at a major U.S. museum. One believed our reliefs were authentic. The other could not guarantee the antiquity of any, and was almost certain some were modern imitations. The scholar pointed out many “peculiar” and “strange” stylistic features that made them likely to be fakes.
— Eliza Graham ’14, from her research report on forgeries

Sculptura, Inc.

When former art history professor Alfred Krakusin was introduced to Herbert Mayer ’29 in the 1950s, the stage was set for the development of a business venture that would come to be known as Sculptura, Inc. Krakusin had developed a metal casting process that allowed metal to be cast in thin, light layers, and had even sold the rights to the process to the U.S. government during the Second World War in aid of the war effort. Mayer quickly translated the casting process into an opportunity for the art world.
    Sculptura’s production process took place in what used to be the Hamilton Railroad Depot at 44 Milford Street. Krakusin or Jack Blanchard ’60, a student at the time, would apply a patina finish which they had developed for this process. The final piece would be buffed and polished, then transported to World House Galleries to be sold by Mayer.
    The Sculptura venture raises interesting questions regarding our reliefs. It seems that Sculptura repeatedly placed a higher value on aesthetics than on historical accuracy, as they repaired flaws in the original casts and divided single pieces into smaller, more visually pleasing compositions. Such unconcern for the physical integrity of the ancient works perhaps has a connection to a feature observed in many of his late antique Egyptian reliefs.
    One also wonders whether or not our reliefs were bought for the purpose of reproduction within Sculptura, Inc. The Sculptura, Inc. catalog notes that reproductions were made from originals that could be found in either “Sculptura’s private collection” or “in the great museums of the world.” The pieces reproduced, however, were primarily Pharaonic scenes that date to the 15th and 14th centuries BC. Our reliefs are probably late antique, placing their origin almost 2,000 years after the Pharaonic pieces. In addition, Sculptura was reproducing very shallow bas relief castings, whereas our pieces are carved in much deeper bas relief that would have made them difficult to cast. It thus seems unlikely that our reliefs were purchased with the intention of being reproduced by Sculptura.
—Ashlee Eve ’14, from her research report on Herbert Mayer’s art reproduction venture


Picker gallery registrar Sarisha Guarneiri and Patricia Jue of the chemistry department (l-r) built custom-made archival boxes for the reliefs.

Each piece was measured carefully for display and storage in a bed of conservation-quality polyethylene foam. 
During the process, Jue also analyzed samples that had flaked off the stones during their years of storage to determine their chemical composition and physical condition.