Authentication of Archaeological Gold

January 27, 2016 - David Bernstein



The oldest known forgery of a pre-Columbian gold object is from the 17th or 18th century.  The forgery is a brass eagle complete with royal crown, and was found in late 1960s and published in 1965 André Emmerich’s 1965 Sweat of the Sun and Tears of the Moon: Gold and Silver in Pre-Columbian Art.

Tremendous growth in interest in archeological gold has contributed to a massive amount of forgeries.

There are two ways to prove that something has been forged; technical proof and stylistic proof. 

Technical proof includes things like spotting the wrong alloy; stylistic proof is in the design of the piece.  Often times an expert will notice a stylistic error which will in turn lead to technical testing.


Gold art work can be authenticated technically by several methods:

  • Determining whether the particular alloy was used in Pre-Columbian or contemporary times.
  • Determining which tools were used to create the work.
  • Determining whether acids were used to create an artificial patina.
  • Particle induced x-ray emission (companies such as CIRAM and ARCANE).
  • Elemental analysis.


Or, a true expert can authentic a piece using this type of stylistic criteria:

  • Incorrect glyphs.
  • Errors in copying from original models, which would be recognized by an expert who had seen the originals.
  • Mixing of stylistic elements from two separate cultures or time periods.
  • Pseudo-primitiveness – intentionally crafting an artwork with bad craftsmanship in an attempt to make it look primitive, when in actually the culture it is supposed to represent had high quality craftsmanship.
  • Unrealistic stylistic departure from the canon of the culture the forger is trying to imitate, in an attempt to make a piece look more rare.


Authentication by Experts

Most of our gold pieces have been approved of by the late Robert Sonin (1926-2011), a renowned expert on Pre-Columbian metallurgy who consulted with major museums, art dealers, conservators, and auction houses, and collaborated with institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History.  His notes are on record at the Princeton University Art Museum.

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