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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Fake it to make it

Faking something is wrong, right? You'll be arrested if you try to imitate currency, an item of jewellery or a work of art and end up in prison if convicted. But museums everywhere are happy to exhibit flawless casts of Classical sculptures and ‘silverware’ with minimal precious metal content, fashion labels are actively encouraging counterfeits of their collections and some of the most famous buildings in the world are actually copies of lost originals. In every other walk of life authenticity is paramount, so why are such facsimiles so common?


Of course paintings have been copied for centuries, whether by apprentices in the studios of the old masters or those studying under the Beaux Arts system hundreds of years later. The difference is simply one of contemporaneity, since the purpose was the same. The great painters themselves often repeated themselves, making copies for gifts, reference or replacement although the inevitable absence of records surrounding some of these has given rise to delicious debates over, say, which is the ‘real’ Mona Lisa that are unlikely ever to end.


The later ideas of the Enlightenment combined with the inheritance of the Industrial Revolution allowed objects made from solid gold and silver – whether the result of contemporary craftsmanship or the treasures of the past – to be brought to a much wider audience than the privileged few who could afford to buy them or undertake a tour abroad to see them. The process of electrotyping, patented in the 1840s, used the difference between negatively and positively charged electrodes to deposit microscopic layers of one material onto moulds taken from another. When applied to items like salvers, goblets or watchcases, an exact reproduction of the surface of that object, including a convincing imitation of the original material, emerged – in effect, a three dimensional photocopy that looked the same but was not. This was done in a fraction of the time it took to make the original, by unskilled workers and to a very high degree of accuracy. Multiple copies could also be made on a production line.


Also in the Victorian age a much older technique become widespread as a means of importing life-size copies of the achievements of Italy sculpted in stone such as heroic figures, decorative doorcases, town fountains and important monuments. Moulded in plaster of Paris,  the resulting pieces – 1,500 in the case of including Michelangelo’s celebrated David – were shipped back home, carefully assembled and authentically painted to allow students, enthusiasts and the general public to walk around and even touch a piece of the past. In Britain this included such institutions as the Royal Academy and the new South Kensington Museum (today the V&A) and the same approach was still in use decades later when the Museo della Civiltà Romana was founded in a suburb of Rome – its collection consists almost entirely of such casts, along with models and other illustrative material. Ironically the authorities in Florence were forced to move the original David inside to prevent deterioration, placing their own replica in the piazza to be admired by the masses.

It took another century or so for the combined effects of media, marketing and manufacturing to bring about the consumer age, which in turn generated the first examples of products that simulate other products, a practice that continues to this day. The first customised cars appeared in America after the Great War, with old Ford Model Ts or Model As altered to improve their looks or performance. This developed into the availability, in subsequent years, of car kits that could be used to give the impression the buyer’s vehicle was something else – usually something faster and more expensive. Available to the public, the method was also employed in the television and film industry to sell the illusion of Crockett and Tubbs’s Ferrari and James Bond’s Aston Martin. Computers no longer fill entire rooms but one man has decided to remake the control panel of the Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-10 mainframe computer first launched in 1966, even if it is driven by a modern device behind the flashing lights. Radios too have reduced in size and increased in portability, yet retro radios that conceal state-of-art innards within an old-style shell have a committed following.

Video game consoles grew out of those early mainframes and reached a peak in the late Seventies with the Atari VCS/2600; though long-since discontinued, its popularity saw Lego add a kit to its range for the 50th anniversary of the original’s release. Those who want a functioning reminder of their childhood can buy a working Atari joystick that also emulates multiple games from the era. Meanwhile, other makers are bringing back their own ‘classic’ products – in the case of Danish home audio firm Bang & Olufsen, by acquiring used examples of its stylish Beosound 9000 compact disc player, reengineering and subtly altering them – or endorsing (perhaps, accepting) an open championing of fast, cheap ‘dupes’ that mimic them. The trend builds on the established practice of lookalike items rushed out by high street multiples and is boosted, naturally, by social media.

At the top end of this scale of pretence are entire buildings. A long-established and well-known Japanese tradition sees the Jingū or Ise Shrine taken apart and rebuilt every twenty years in line with the Shinto belief in renewal, but the hordes who throng Piazza San Marco in Venice are probably unaware that the famous Renaissance campanile is a replica that took a decade to build, the original having fallen down in 1902 during repairs. The rebuild used reinforced concrete for its structure, clad with over a million bricks plus the architectural fragments that had been saved and could be reused. Those who visit the Spanish capital in search of Mies Van Der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, built for the Exposición Internacional de Barcelona 1929 and demolished immediately afterward, are likely to be more familiar with its status as a painstaking recreation by a group of local architects fifty years after its loss – it now acts a tribute to a building that displayed the principles of one of the most important 20th century designers.


Germans themselves welcomed the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche in Dresden stone by stone after wartime bombing and decades of deliberate abandonment under Communist rule. Rather fewer were as happy with the concept, budget or final look of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, a recent near-duplication of the imperial Berliner Schloss or Stadtschloss that was blown up after the last world war as a political act. A special relationship is said to link the leaders based in the White House in Washington, DC and 10 Downing Street in London, but so does the fact that each centuries-old structure has been rebuilt behind retained façades – the former in 1950 and the latter in 1960.


Nostalgia, chutzpah and a yearning for reassurance in an uncertain world are likely to be playing a part in all of the above. Regardless, the resulting items must make this blog post fake news…

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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