19 September 2004
James Lileks imagines Rathergate for art-history students:
We understand that there has been some controversy over the newly discovered Michelangelo painting featured in 60 Minutes' expose of curatorial malfeasance at the Metropolitan Museum. Some outside experts note that close analysis of the wood frame reveals the presense of modern staples, and while we agree this is curious as are the words "Abilene Frame Shop" engraved into the wood it is hardly conclusive. Others have questioned the use of acrylic instead of oil paints, and the presence of nylon fibers embedded in the brushstrokes have led some to question whether the painting is indeed 500 years old. These are issues worth pursuing, and we will redouble our efforts. But it's a little bit frustrating to see all this reduced to a debate over slivers and threads, instead of the real question, namely, how did Michelangelo's "Madonna of the Dealership" include a 1957 Chevy Bel-Air rendered with such astonishing detail, half a millennium before the car was designed? Thatís the issue we think should be the focus of our attention.
Not that CBS would cover such a thing on 60 Minutes anyway; this is Sunday morning, pre-Face the Nation fare, and besides Charles Kuralt is dead.
And Woody Allen, of all people, anticipated this situation. In a short story ("The Scrolls") originally published in The New Republic (!) in the early Seventies, Allen posited that a newly-discovered set of Dead Sea Scrolls might not be entirely genuine:
Scholars will recall that several years ago a shepherd, wandering in the Gulf of Aqaba, stumbled upon a cave containing several large clay jars and also two tickets to the ice show. Inside the jars were discovered six parchment scrolls with ancient incomprehensible writing which the shepherd, in his ignorance, sold to the museum for $750,000 apiece. Two years later the jars turned up in a pawnshop in Philadelphia. One year later the shepherd turned up in a pawnshop in Philadelphia and neither was claimed.
Archaeologists originally set the date of the scrolls at 4000 B.C., or just after the massacre of the Israelites by their benefactors. The writing is a mixture of Sumerian, Aramaic, and Babylonian and seems to have been done by either one man over a long period of time, or several men who shared the same suit. The authenticity of the scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly since the word "Oldsmobile" appears several times in the text, and the few fragments that have finally been translated deal with familiar religious themes in a more than dubious way. Still, excavationist A. H. Bauer has noted that even thought the fragments seem totally fraudulent, this is probably the greatest archeological find in history with the exception of the recovery of his cuff links from a tomb in Jerusalem.
Truly everything old is new again.Posted at 11:43 PM to Political Science Fiction