Galerie Peter Herrmann

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The Ethnologist's Source

In People and Scene, we present key players from the small scene of collectors, dealers and scholars focused on African art. On this page: Ernst Pernicka.


No laboratory for metals testing in Europe is cited more often than the one run by the seemingly jovial Professor Pernicka: the Curt Engelhorn Center for Archaeometry gGmbH in Mannheim. There, you can get information about the authenticity of a piece based on scientific analysis of African metal sculptures and commission an "authenticity investigation," which often takes up to a year to complete and costs quite a lot of money.

The metal testing laboratories that have recently emerged in large numbers base their findings on the authority of this laboratory, and all of them share one thing in common with Mannheim: they only discover counterfeit pieces, charging a hefty sum to do so and making frequent reference to Mr. Pernicka's expertise.

Let us take a closer look, then, at the man who is significantly disturbing both the market and the realm of art historical research. Since 2011, the Galerie Peter Herrmann, like so many of its colleagues, also counts itself among those affected by this new "expertise." Reason enough to gather the experiences of traders and other art mediators into a single paper.


To the best of my and my colleagues' knowledge, all pieces submitted to Mr. Pernicka have been designated as "new." In his list of "expertise," he dates his procedure to 1996, the year he developed the so-called Pb-210 test. At other times, however, he says that the first test series wasn't performed until 2008. Of this series, 23 Nigerian bronzes have been designated as new and three as old, which in this case, means indeterminately older than 120 years. These three, naturally, come from the museum where Pernicka was the Director. As far as several of my colleagues and I know, these are the only three pieces that have ever been designated as old.

The Pb-210 method, applied for sediment research, has not, according to relevant inquiries and internet research, ever been scientifically verified for use on bronze castings. The only publication to which all metallurgical laboratories refer is one from the 2008 book Original-Copy-Fake, to which Pernicka himself also frequently refers with the suggestion, "see Pernicka 2008." This series is completely unscientific and has never been cross-checked. To the contrary, since the beginning of my research around 1999, I've discovered many physicists and metal experts who say that using this Pb-210 method on bronzes is pure nonsense. There have also been court cases in which Mr. Pernicka plays an unhappy role. In the documents I've seen, the court explicitly prohibited him from using aluminum and a few other elements as criteria for his "new" designation. And yet he continues to do so nonetheless.

The 23 "new" pieces from his test series all come from the collection of a single very wealthy individual; each has undergone, at one time or another, a thermoluminescence analysis – some in several different laboratories. Each was determined to have an age that coincided with assessments based on style.

Only a painstaking reading of the test series results reveals the three "genuine" bronzes as those from the Reiss Engelhorn Museum. And when the identifying marker is finally found, it's an outrage. How are these three pieces marked? Not "Aluminum (Al) 0.00," but rather "Aluminum (Al) n.m."

“n.m” means “not measured.” Had aluminum actually been measured – in other words, had the piece been examined on that basis – the marker would say "Al 0.00" if there were no aluminum. Incidentally, this method has also been adopted by Mr. Junge at the Ethnological Museum of Berlin; for unexamined pieces, he equates "has not been not tested" with "contains no aluminum."

Troublesome contradictions can, of course, be easily eliminated this way. What any of it has to do with science is another question.

The history of this test series is also highly interesting, especially given that so many ethnologists now cite it so frequently. The wealthy Rhenish businessman personally purchased all 23 pieces, none of which came from a museum, and gave them all to Mr. Pernicka's laboratory for expensive testing. Apparently, the whole bunch is fake. Upon receiving this news, the businessman hastily organized a symposium in Bochum, where he put together a "scientific" bloc. The extent to which that reeks of laying the groundwork for a return-of-goods process, I've already explained elsewhere. Since then, the small but academically significant choirs have been singing the song of lead decay, aluminum and the evil elements, with the Viennese Ms. Plankensteiner leading the way. The "veracity" of the statements increase annually through some publication or another in which "Pernicka 2008" is cited. In other words, the so-called test series is nothing more than a private-sector commission intended to generate usable results.

The book that came out of the symposium – which includes, in addition to Mr. Pernicka's article, other very lofty nonsense, including some contributed by Ms. Plankensteiner, which I've discussed elsewhere at great length – is also purely a product of this single person with known background and interests operating in the free market. Nicely designed as a foundation.


And now to the greatest trick with which the professor auctions off his expertise: it is he himself who explains that what he's doing doesn't work.

"It should, however, be noted that the absence of measurable 210-Pb activity is not proof that a piece is between 100 and 120 years old since old metal could have been used for its production.

The method is not suited to age determination since the concentration of 210-Pb in the production of the metal is unknown and can fluctuate widely. (For more information about the method, see Pernicka et al. 2008)."

Pernicka writes, in other words, that his method doesn't work and goes so far as to support this point with a reference to his famous publication. This is perhaps the stupidest formulation I've ever seen from the keyboard of a metallurgist. It essentially means: if I find material that proves a piece is younger than 120 years, then it's proof positive, but if I find nothing that proves that, the piece may still be new because "nothing" has no meaning and thus includes "new" as a possibility.

In the second paragraph, he qualifies his own statement and says that his method, with which he redefined the entire field, is not even suited to age determination. If he were a doctor, it would sound something like this::

If I find bacteria in the blood, it's evidence of a specific disease. If I don't find any, the patient may still be sick. But even the bacteria found are perhaps not bacteria at all. In any case, the patient needs chemotherapy – because either way, he could be sick. To avoid all liability, all treatment methods must be implemented for all diseases.

Pernicka has referred, in several interviews, to floods of forgeries from West Africa. Of course – when all pieces examined by his laboratory are deemed "new."


Nach Oben

But Pernicka will find himself in an even tighter corner when the ominous ionizing radiation canon comes into play and is made available to dealers – who, in any case, are little more than a gang of forgers in the eyes of several metallurgists and ethnologists. Using this canon, age is determined by – to put it most simply – bombarding a piece with radioactivity. But where, please, is the paper on the reaction of the material examined by Pernicka using his Pb-210 method, which measures precisely the disintegration time from radioactivity?

In a word: nowhere. There is no paper.

Neither is there one on natural enrichment via radon. The pieces revealed as "new" by Mr. Pernicka's laboratory have all come from the free market, whose protagonists are not usually in a position to pursue expensive litigation. We are thus all the more thankful to the fellow dealer who, from 1997 to 2001, risked his assets, his pension and, for four and a half years, his health in order to proceed with his opposition to people like Pernicka. What Pernicka didn't know was that prior to becoming a dealer, this colleague had worked as a metal examiner, performing complicated procedures at the TÜV as well as in many German laboratories. The list of doctors and professors who testified against Pernicka reads like a who's who of German scientists. In the end, Mr. Pernicka's expertise was repudiated without reserve, his suit against the colleague thus 100 percent lost. But even that makes no difference to Mr. Pernicka and a few ethnologists.

Every now and then, it is quietly reported that Mr. Pernicka's laboratory has examined museum pieces; no expert analysis has yet been seen. Naturally, although museums are funded with the public's tax money, some results must be strictly kept from the public – one never knows, after all, what mischief it might create if given access.

Rumor has it, however, that in 2013, Pernicka did, in fact, test several objects from the Vienna Museum of Ethnology. His laboratory very precisely determined that these pieces contain aluminum. As already shown, Pernicka's hypothesis dictates that the presence of aluminum automatically means "new." And since aluminum is almost always present in West African bronzes, he uses this fact to support his Pb-210 method. With one claim, he proves the other and vice versa. And to shore up the whole thing even more solidly in his view, he comes up with assertions such as: the presence of manganese and cadmium is also proof of "new." But if aluminum is found even in museum pieces, then all pieces will slowly become only as old as their purchase date.

It is as though Pernicka has finally succeeded in reinterpreting Hegel's much-mangled thesis: Africa has no history. Yes – because Pernicka is the in process of negating it. And when he's done with bronzes, we can look forward to him designating terracotta from excavations as "new." The groundwork, after all, has already been laid. For if Pernicka's own great method renders thermoluminescence testing null and void, it can no longer be used for terracotta. Pernicka will have shoved all of sub-Saharan Africa into definitive, meaningless nothingness.

Interestingly, his expensive expertise is not accompanied by TL reports, which are offered but not performed by his laboratory. Nor, incidentally, are they performed at other metallurgical laboratories. Several times, we've commissioned a metal examination and thermoluminescence test from the same laboratory and received only the metal analysis in return, accompanied by the claim: aluminum equals new. The requested TL test – which we wanted, after all, to pay for – we simply did not receive. (See Oxford, Paz, CIRAM…)

Pernicka has already been forced by the court to retract all the claims enumerated in his alloy derivations, but that doesn't keep him from claiming exactly the same thing again and again. The writer of these lines supposes that may have something to do with the GmbH in the header of Mr. Pernicka’s address. In the statement he gave to the LKA during its proceedings against me, he confusingly and bizarrely wrote – I'm only permitted to give the gist of it – that he'd been prohibited by the court from saying what he was saying, but that he was saying it nonetheless. Which, of course, renders his expertise virtually insignificant, legally speaking. Still, the weight of the Professor title may continue to carry meaning – depending on the snobbery of the judge.

Peter Herrmann.October 2013

A request

Should a sympathetic reader know of a West African bronze that is, according to the expertise of the Curt Engelhorn Center for Archaeometry gGmbH, considered old, the writer of these lines would be grateful to obtain a copy of the finding for further studies.

Many thanks in advance.

  Bronzes from Southern Nigeria. A reckoning with Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner.
  Expertise from Barbara Plankensteiner for the LKA, with comments (coming)
  Article about Peter Junge
  Article about Udo Horstmann (english, français, deutsch)
  Age Classification article by Peter Herrmann (english, français, deutsch)
  Forgotten Cultural Treasures Foundation on Hermann Forkl. External link
  Benin-Im Fadenkreuz Artikel in Kunst & Kontext
  Exhibition 2007. With many auction results.
  Exhibition 2008
  Exhibition 2009
  Exhibition 2011
Description of thermoluminescence analysis by Professor Dr. Joseph Riederer & Dr. Christian Goedicke. The former Director and lead researcher of the Rathgen Research Laboratory in Berlin also use our testing method. (Though we no longer share Dr. Riederer's assessment of lead decay measurement)
External link to the page of Professor Dr. Joseph Riederer, who, like Peter Herrmann, questions Ms. Plankensteiner and Mr. Pernicka's allegation of a "flood of forgeries."
  Ethnologisches Museum Berlin - Digitale Ausstellung - Vergleichsobjekte
  Question?? Answer!!! What about airport X-Rays and Radiography ? - Kotalla | pdf
Wikipedia - "...Bisher ist es Fälschern nicht gelungen, diese Methode der Altersbestimmung auszuhebeln, weil es offensichtlich unmöglich ist, frisch gebrannte Keramik durch künstliche Bestrahlung so „aufzuladen“, dass der zeitliche Verlauf der TL-Strahlung während des Erhitzens imitiert wird."


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