The two heads of figures from Teotihuacán donated by Zeballos and reproduced by Félix Outes in 1908.

Ceramic with the representation of a man standing or lying down, seen from the front or from above, respectively. He has a headdress and earmuffs; he wears his short skirt. Zeballos Collection, La Plata Museum.

Reverse of the ceramic piece with its label placed when entering the Museum in June of (18)93. Zeballos Collection, La Plata Museum.

Ana Igareta

Degree in Anthropology and Doctor in Natural Sciences, National University of La Plata. Associate Researcher of CONICET for the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the UNLP. She is in charge of the archaeological collections of the Museo de La Plata, she coordinates the Museum's Historical Archeology Team.


Ana Igareta has specialized in urban historical archaeology, she is part of the Urban Archeology Center.


Daniel Schavelzon

Director of the Center for Urban Archeology (UBA), he received a doctorate in Architecture from the Autonomous University of Mexico with a specialty in Pre-Hispanic Architecture. Professor at the University of Buenos Aires, he has been a professor at different universities in America.


Schávelzon founded the Center for Urban Archeology, dependent on the University of Buenos Aires, the Urban Archeology area in the Government of the City of Buenos Aires and the Foundational Area in the city of Mendoza. Former CONICET Senior Researcher.


He has published some 50 books on archeology and art history, and more than three hundred articles in scientific and popular magazines.

Among others, he has received international awards and scholarships, such as the Guggenheim scholarship (New York 1994); National Gallery of Art-CASVA (Washington, 1995), Graham Foundation for the Arts of Chicago (1984), Getty Grant Program (1991), Harvard University-Dumbarton Oaks (1996), DAAD Berlin (1988), Center for Latin-American Studies from the University of Pittsburgh (2002), FAMSI, Florida (1995), and the Center for Comparative Anthropology at the University of Bonn (1998).

By Daniel Schávelzon and Ana Igareta

In 1895 the Museo de La Plata received a donation of pre-Columbian objects of Mexican origin; they were delivered by Estanislao Zeballos, a personality of his time, and are part of the collection that bears his name. The study of these artifacts, considered minor economically and culturally for their time, showed that there were at least two forgeries of black pottery, of the type called “from Tlatelolco”. A group of very active potters worked in that town since the beginning of the 19th century and perhaps even before, both creative artists and forgers. Given the low economic significance of counterfeiting this type of object at that time -Mexico in the last quarter of the 19th century-, and the easy access to authentic pieces offered by shops, numerous questions arise about the significance and value of archeology fake at the time.

Until not so many years ago, one of the fundamental data to determine the authenticity of an archaeological object that had not been found in a controlled excavation, was the information of what we can call its "genealogy". This is who and where they found it or how they got it, in what context it was found and when it happened. Some of the most important pieces in the world's archaeological museums were donated by individuals who could provide a more or less approximate reference to their provenance and the conditions in which they were found. Although for current archaeology, this situation is unreliable, the truth is that the large collections that most researchers still use as references were formed during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the study of materials was just beginning to take its current academic course and the activity was consolidated as a scientific discipline.

In that period, many pieces of pre-Columbian origin were donated to Latin American museums by great personalities of local archeology, the same ones responsible for the foundation of institutions of enormous scientific prestige today. And, almost in all cases, the authenticity of these objects was not questioned. The genealogy given by its donors made it unthinkable that it was a forgery.

Such an assumption was based on a set of assessments of varied caliber, which not only included the unquestionable knowledge of many of those involved in the identification of the pieces, but also the conviction that no one could be interested in making fakes of local antiquities (particularly of those of some countries such as the Argentine Republic) since these had almost no economic value (unlike what happened in other nations, where they did). In the museographic imaginary of Latin America, all the archaeological material that entered its collections before 1900 was considered authentic, and there was even a consensus that, at least in countries with little traffic and looting, nothing was fake before the 1990s. 1950.

The view of some so-called experts was so simplistic that they considered that the great impersonations began with the business of Joseph Brummer in Paris around 1910 (Coe 2011). What happened was that a previously almost non-existent market opened up there: that of the great private collectors of universal art, who began to include pre-Columbian pieces from that moment in the Hollywood fashion dictated by Paul Getty. People who only wanted objects of very high value, exceptional, unlike the museums that were content with flashy pieces... At that time, the experts concentrated their eyes on the market for the very large, very expensive and sometimes very obvious, without realizing that this was the end and not the beginning of the business installation.

From a distance, it is very striking that in the mid-nineteenth century and even before, in a country so rich in archaeological remains, some person intentionally manufactured objects similar to pre-Columbian pieces with the intention that they be confused with them and thus earn money. Wasn't it easier to go and dig them, since there were no laws that prohibited it, or who controlled it? Very detailed recent analyzes carried out in various institutions (Sellen 2018), revealed that a percentage of archaeological pieces incorporated in the aforementioned period are not authentic, but rather clear imitations or forgeries, or in the best of cases, as with the Zapotec urns were original fragments completed and increased in splendor.

Fakes, imitations, copies

When considering the possibility of the falsification of an archaeological object, the reason for which it is recognized as such must be taken into account. In the first place, it must be ruled out that it is not a problem of classification, as occurred with pieces of colonial origin that were initially referenced as pre-Columbian and in which later analyzes recognized techniques, materials or ornamentation that were not pre-Hispanic. With an adequate chronological attribution it was verified that they were authentic colonial pieces. In such cases there was never any bad intention or desire to deceive anyone, it was simply a problem of context that the development of the discipline resolved.

Secondly, the possibility that the pieces were authentic but that the find was false must be considered, as occurred with the Teotihuacan ceramic heads supposedly found in Argentina, analyzed and published by Francisco Moreno (1890-91) and later by Felix Outes (1908). In that case, the material was authentic, but what was false was the information they were given that they were found in the vicinity of the Lobos lagoon in the province of Buenos Aires. Moreno published them in good faith because his appearance was consistent with the proposal of his diffusionist hypotheses, but someone had lied to him about their origin and there is the axis to define if something is false or authentic: the intention to deceive (Schávelzon 1996 ).

The third consideration is that, beyond the political, cultural and social changes that began in the 16th century in much of the Americas, potters from all over the continent continued to manufacture objects for use, combining – as always happens – traditional materials and techniques with innovation. . At this point it is essential to remember that the transition from the pre-Columbian world to the colony is a historiographical abstraction. And that, in reality, people experienced it in a very varied way, including continuing to produce an extensive repertoire of objects with formal or aesthetic characteristics similar to other older ones. These ceramic manufacturing practices remained, and some even remain in force. In this way there are two possibilities: the genuine mistake of a buyer who mistook or received these pieces believing that they were archaeological (although the seller has not tried to sell them as such), or that it is the economic survival strategy of selling them as if they were ancient, which makes them counterfeits when presented as authentic.

It can also happen that the ceramic craftsman makes copies of authentic pieces (and makes an effort to make them look old) but without the intention of selling them later as originals. In this case, if there is a deception, the responsibility lies with the dealer, not with the manufacturer or the collector or buyer. The system requires various actors, but it is complex to decide who is to blame, and the latter are the victims of fraud.

The avidity of collectors and museums for the pre-Columbian world since the 19th century -which in reality was no different from that felt by the kings of Spain with the treasures of Columbus, Cortés or Pizarro-, also generated a now-studied retouching process of authentic pieces or the manufacture of new objects using archaeological remains as raw material. In Mexico, the Aztecs had already developed the neo-Teotihuacan and neo-Toltec styles, which were not forgeries but aesthetic appropriations. Copying or reuse is not a modern topic

The famous rock crystal skull. One of the attractions of the British Museum, was recognized as fake.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the true counterfeiters, malicious characters who make pieces with the sole purpose of selling them as originals. They are never the ones who trade them, they only sell them to those who intermediate them mixed with others in the long sequence of the fake market. When did that come up? We do not know, but in the first collections of the Mexican museum in the 1820s there were already false pieces and if Eugene Boban had the great Crystal Skull of the British Museum made in the 1860s, it is clear that the subject is even more complex than we suppose. That singular piece exhibited in the British Museum, may have been the most resonant case of those discovered in recent years, since it was made around 1860 in Germany by those who, today it is known, made more than one. (MacLaren Walsh 1997, 2005; MacLaren Walsh and Topping 2019).

Fakes in Mexico

In the last decades of the 19th century, the earliest studies aimed at pointing out the existence of false material and imitations in certain highly prestigious collections were published. Science magazine included two articles on the subject, in 1885 and 1886; the first entitled "On some spurious Mexican antiques and their relationship with ancient art" (1) and the other, referring to the fraud suffered by the Museum of American Indians, which exhibited a monumental piece of ceramics from Mexico. (2) Shortly thereafter, William Holmes, the author of that first article, published for the first time an inventory of fake objects, and traced their origin. (3) Extending the theme to the entire continent, Leopoldo Batres presented in 1910 a book with numerous evidences. In that same year, Salvador Ambrosetti did the same with counterfeit objects made of bronze in northwestern Argentina. (1910). Although we must recognize that in Argentina the problem of the authenticity of archaeological pieces has been much less addressed than in other countries in the region.

In the opinion of these and other researchers, counterfeits existed perhaps since the end of the 18th century, but it was a problem minimized by the same institutions that acquired the pieces, given that no one liked to admit that they were swindled, or that their supposed expertise in certain material, it was not enough to recognize its lack of authenticity. Or maybe because, knowing that they might not be authentic, it was worth taking the risk. Decades passed before the problem of forgeries was recognized as such, and situations such as the embarrassment suffered by Mexico in sending supposedly engraved bricks from the ruins of Palenque to the 1892 Columbian Exposition in Spain, only for Batres (1910) to published the finding of the molds with which they had been manufactured.

In the following decades, other authors confirmed the insights of the forerunners on the subject, for example, through the tracing and study of the biographies of several great international counterfeiters, swindlers and merchants of the 19th century, who both altered original pieces and produced new, or that they marketed them with or without conscience, and even perhaps some, believing in good faith that what they sold was authentic. Among them, the names of Eugene Goupil, Constantino Rickards, Henry Christy, Louis H. Aymé, Auguste Genin, Eugene Boban or William Niven stand out. Some of them with businesses in Mexico, where they bought original pieces, counterfeits or doubtful things, and sold them in the United States and throughout Europe.

Similar characters must have operated in the other countries of the continent, from there they supplied foreign and national buyers. Undoubtedly there were also individuals in charge of buying pieces for private collections and museums who were deceived by sellers of counterfeits and, without knowing it, contributed to spreading them. When trying to reconstruct the path of archaeological forgeries, it is essential to remember that, until a few years ago, the making of copies from original pieces was not prohibited and in fact it was a common exchange practice between museums around the world. The issue was not the copy, but those who passed them off as originals.

Esther Pasztory (1982), who did so much to identify fake Aztec objects, noted with respect to Mesoamerica that “It is now generally assumed that forgeries in pre-Columbian art are a recent phenomenon and that objects that have been in collections for fifty years years or more, they are genuine.” As she demonstrated, a percentage of these forgeries were crudely identifiable, because those who made them did not have the ability to understand pre-Hispanic art and added elements taken from Europe or the East, or completed the missing ones with their own imagination.

The truth is that the great exhibitions that took place in Paris and London throughout the 19th century, and the Colombina in Madrid in 1892, were a hotbed of exhibitions of false American pieces, among which the famous Zapotec urns stand out, from which only four of the thirty-six exposed were authentic. (Sellen et al 2000) And worse yet, of the four thousand Zapotec urns in the world's museums, nearly a thousand are fake (Mogne 1987).

The Mexican pieces of the Zeballos Collection

In 1893, a few years after the Museo de La Plata was founded, Estanislao Zeballos (1853 – 1923) donated a small group of Mexican ceramic objects. They went to Warehouse no. 9 for his guard, and there they remained. Except for the small heads of figures from Teotihuacán that were published (4), the rest was forgotten. When the set was reviewed, it was interesting to find two rectangular-shaped pieces of black ceramic, which are not only false, but their extemporaneous production already had a long history at the time of their donation.

They were made by the same hand, trying to imitate objects from the past and we suppose, to fool someone. They were not utilitarian or ornamental, like the ceramics of Tlatelolco of the eighteenth century. We have already shown that the latter originally imitated a Spanish vessel model; that is, it was not made to deceive, but was marketed that way years later. Despite this, there were some that, in pottery of their time, had heads of older human figures attached, although we should not necessarily think of it as a deception but also as an ornament, recovery or entertainment. The true false dichotomy no longer applies. These ceramics, whether from Tlatelolco and/or Teotihuacán, like those made in Tula (State of Hidalgo), were black or very dark red, and the ones we are discussing seem to be included in one of those traditions that were very active in the nineteenth century. And at least in Tula they are still that color.

Ceramic with the figure of a woman lying down, with lines or rays that are distributed from her head. With earmuffs. Zeballos Collection, La Plata Museum. 

At a distance in time, today we can ask ourselves if Zeballos bought them deceived or knowing what they were. And if they were given to him on his way through Mexico, was that act with or without malice? The rest that he brought was authentic, very minor pieces in size and category for what was then considered a museum piece, or a gift to an official from another country.

As far as we know, the name of Estanislao Zeballos had not been linked to pre-Columbian themes, although it had been linked to the development of science and collecting, including indigenous skulls, among many other things. (LINK: ), and about Mexican archeology in particular, we do not know his wisdom, if he had any. In 1872 he was part of the founding group of the Argentine Scientific Society and three years later he presented the project to create the Museum of Natural Sciences at that institution. In 1879 he was appointed the first president of the Argentine Geographical Institute.

Friend of several scientific personalities of the time -including the founder and first director of the Museo de La Plata, Francisco P. Moreno-, and co-author of a report on a pre-Hispanic burial mound located in Campana, we must recognize that his interest in this material archaeological was not that of a scientist.

Zeballos -lawyer, journalist, professor, legislator and civil servant- starred in an important public career; in their support of the Campaign to the Desert -and even in the trip to Patagonia (LINK: ), after the expedition commanded by Julio A. Roca- and in his work as Argentine Foreign Minister. In the presidency of Juárez Celman he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1889, and in the management of Carlos Pellegrini he held that function again between 1891 and 1892. At that time -the biography is confusing-, although he was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary in Mexico his journey towards that diplomatic destination drifted to the United States, sent as minister to the White House where President Cleveland was to give the arbitration ruling on Misiones, which was contrary to Argentina.

If he passed through Mexico to or from Mexico on that trip, it would seem reasonable, although we are not certain.


A seated human figure that inaugurated the collection of the Harvard University museum, the cradle of modern anthropology, was brought from Mexico in 1866, and was modern (modern of its time) and inspired by a European model, surely made by someone who maintained a long tradition of modeling such representations without denying foreign influence (Schávelzon 2012). If it was made to deceive or if it was originally an ornament of a peasant house, or if it intentionally passed as pre-Hispanic and because it was ancient, these are things we will never know. That is to say, if it was sold with that history in origin or if whoever wore it believed that, or if those who gave it that appearance were those who donated it to the museum once the person who made it travel died; all unanswered questions.

The great forgeries are from the 19th century. But those made with smaller pieces whose values ​​should have been negligible, indicate a somewhat mass interest at the beginning of the 20th century, as a result of the increase in consumption by middle-class tourism (Shiner 1994). For every great stone mask or excellent obsidian vessel that managed to sell, visitors had to buy hundreds of inexpensive figures as simple souvenirs, as handicrafts, as imitations, not to pass them off as something antique but as a curiosity and souvenir of history. visit to a place (Mastache, without date).

In short, the concepts of false or authentic are cultural constructions, with very varied possibilities of interpretation.


1. William Holmes: On some spurious Mexican antiquities and their relation to ancient art. In Science. Vol. vii, Washington, 1885, p. 170172.

2. L.T. Gratapac: An Archaeological Fraud. In Science, Washington, November 1886, pp. 403-404.

3. William Holmes: On Some Spurious Mexican Antiquities and Their Relation to Ancient Art. In Smithsonian Institution Papers Relating Anthropology, Washington, 1889.

4. It was published by Outes (1908: 290-291) and he says that there were two heads carried by Zeballos, which he published as figures 11 and 12 (Figures 5 and 6). Apparently that second one no longer belongs to the collection or at least it's not next to it.

Other bibliographical references:

Batres, Leopoldo (1910), Antigüedades mexicanas: falsificadores y falsificación, Imprenta de F. Soria, México.

Coe, Michael (2011), From Huaquero to Connoisseur: the early market in Pre-Columbian art, (E. Boone edit.), Collecting the Pre-Columbian Past pp. 271-290, Washington: Dumbarton Oaks.

MacLaren Walsh, Jeanne

(1997), Crystal skulls and other problems (A. Henderson y A. Kaepler edits) Exhibiting dilemmas: Issues of representations at the Smithsonian Institution pp. 116-119.

(2005), What is real? A new look at pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Collections, Anthronotes 26- 1: 1-19.

(2006) Falsificando la historia. Los falsos objetos prehispánicos, Arqueología Mexicana, nº 82, pp. 20-25.

MacLaren Walsh, J. y B. Topping (2019), The Man who Invented Aztec Cristal Skulls, New York: Berghahn.

Mogne, Pascal (1987), Les urnes funeraries zapoteques: collectionisme et contrafacon, Journal des Americanistes 73: 7-50.

Moreno, Francisco P. (1890/91), El Museo de La Plata, rápida ojeada sobre su fundación y desarrollo, Revista del Museo I: 51-62.

Outes, Félix (1908), Sobre el hallazgo de alfarerías mexicanas en la provincia de Buenos Aires, Revista del Museo, XV: 284-293.

Pasztory, Esther (1982), Three Aztec Mask of the God Xipe, (E. Benson y E. Boone edits.) Falsifications and Misreconstructions of Precolumbian Art :77-105, Washington: Dumbarton Oaks.

Schávelzon, Daniel (1996), Un fraude histórico al Perito Moreno: la cerámica mexicana de Laguna de Lobos, 1890,

(2012), Arte y falsificación en América Latina. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

(2012), El imaginario de lo prehispánico: el origen de las falsificaciones de Tlatelolco, Antilha 2: 9-19.

(2014), Mitla o Quechmitoplican: ¿Fantasía del siglo XIX? Disquisiciones sobre Wiliam Niven, Thomas Edison y un grabado imaginario, Arqueología 48: 176-181.

(2020), El pensador de Mesoamérica: El primer objeto (falso) del Museo Peabody de la Universidad de Harvard (1846-1866), Anales del Museo de El Salvador “David Guzmán” 57-58: 212-226.

(2020), Tráfico ilícito de arqueología en Argentina: ¿mercado, corrupción, política, dependencia económica o incapacidad? Revista de arqueología del Poniente 30: 255-260.

Sellen, Adam (2018), Fake: A Story of a Zapotec Urn, Ontario: Royal Ontario Museum.

Sellen, A., L. Lazos, A. Martinez, J. L. Ruvalcaba y L. Bucio (2000), Aplicación de técnicas nucleares y termoluminiscencia en el estudio… de la autenticidad de las urnas zapotecas. Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, México: UNAM.

Shiner, L. (1994), Primitive Fakes, Tourist Art and the Ideology of Authenticity, Journal of Aesthetics and Criticism 52-

2: 225-234.

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