How to Identify Real Fakes: A User’s Guide to Mayan “Codices”

by Michael Coe (Yale University) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

Forgeries have long been a scourge to archaeology and art history alike, rearing up whenever money mixes with “excessive desire and bad judgment” (Meyer 1973:103, see also Lapatin 2000:45). According to Ascanio Condivi, even Michelangelo got into the act by passing off one of his carvings as a valuable antiquity (Holroyd 1903:21–22). Yet fakes also serve as fascinating evidence in the history of crime, especially for that special con by which the cleverness of a forger matches wits with scholars.

Fakers may win for a time—think of the “Etruscan warriors” concocted by the brothers Pio and Alfonso Riccardi and later sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (von Bothmer and Noble 1961). But mostly they lose. No one can look today at van Meegeren’s banal paintings and think, as Hermann Göring did, that Vermeer had a hand in their making (Godley 1967). Scientific techniques play a role in separating fakes from genuine pieces, along with a systematic probing of provenience, outright confessions—proudly made in some cases (Beltracchi and Kunst)—and the mere fact that every generation draws on greater knowledge. Faking becomes harder and harder, and the myth, say, that a forger knows more than specialists in Maya art and writing is scarcely credible. The wise analyst must also ask the standard gumshoe questions: who was the victim, who the perpetrator, was there any intent to deceive, was harm done as a result (Chappell and Polk 2009:3, 16)?

There are, no doubt, works that continue to puzzle. The Getty Kouros, for example, is either a fake that deeply skews our understanding of Greek art or it is a revealing anomaly that shows our “imperfect understanding of what remains, and the limits of our perspectives, preconceptions, and comprehension” (Lapatin 2000:46). And then there are the stunningly terrible fakes that do not so much represent a “crisis of criteria” (Lapatin 2000:43), a tough decision to be made between competing claims, as obvious forgeries that would fool no scholar.

Think about Maya fakes. There are many of them (Eberl and Prager 2000; Eberl and Prem 2011), some published, to our amazement, in important traveling exhibits (Gallenkamp and Johnson 1985:pls. 62, 63, 69, 72, 74). A few have needed further research. Typically, the more challenging cases are colonial, with only a few purported signs or images of indigenous nature (Hanks 1992; Jones 1992). But, under hard scrutiny, they too eventually yield their secrets. As for “Pre-Columbian books,” the tell-tale indicator is whether they exist as a pastiche, a rough assortment of glyphs or pictures. Often in nonsensical order, and mostly lifted from well-known sources, the glyphs and images tumble out in combinations that are, to expert eyes, anachronistic, stylistically inconsistent or incoherent, and contrary to recent decipherments of Maya writing.

With Maya books, of which only four intact examples remain, there is no real “crisis of criteria.” Quite simply, the fakes are glaring, at times laughable: who would be fooled by them today? In truth, few scholars ever were. The first such studies were done by Frans Blom (1935a, 1935b; 1946) and by a sprinkling of others (Brainerd 1948; Wassén 1942).

The “codices” tend to have a number of attributes, including:

(1) recognizable day and month signs, sometimes interspersed with wishful squiggles intended to simulate glyphs (Figure 1; compare with Figure 3, below);


Figure 1. Comparison of faked codex with source image in Dresden 19a. 


(2) a crudely polished leather base, with follicles clearly evident, or on what appears to be amate (fig-tree bark) or even coconut fiber (Figures 2, 3);



Figure 2. Faked leather codex and source image (K594, photograph copyright Justin Kerr, used with permission).


(3) little to no confidence of line, the “hand” being ill-practiced in calligraphy (Figure 3);



Figure 3. Unpracticed handling of paint, illegible signs and crude leather base.

(4) overbold and liberal use of polychromy (Figure 4; see also Figure 5, from the Peabody Museum at Yale University);


Figure 4. Bright polychromy: source image to right, “Pellicer Vase,” Museo Regional de Antropología Carlos Pellicer Cámara (photograph to right: Stephen Houston). 


Yale PM fake obverse.jpg

Figure 5. Garish polychromy on the Yale Peabody Museum Codex (photograph by Michael Coe); note also the copying from Dresden 56b.

(5) transparent copying from widely available sources, especially the Dresden Codex and sundry illustrations from general books.

A few of these examples will suffice. One smuggles in a poorly interpreted vulture from a page of the Dresden Codex (Figure 1). The hammock and courtly figures on the so-called “Pellicer vase” from the Museo Regional de Antropología Carlos Pellicer Cámara, Villahermosa, Tabasco, transfer neatly to another “codex” (Figure 4; vase published in Covarrubias 1957), and a Late Classic image of a mythic figure from a polychrome vase excavated at Uaxactun Guatemala finds an inept copy on yet another leather codex (Figure 6). Mixing periods–—the mural dates to the late 300s, early 400s—the faker also quoted freely from the well-published Ratinlixul Vase, excavated in 1917 by Robert Burkitt near Chamá, Guatemala, and now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum (UPM No. NA 11701, Danien 1997:38, Fig. 1).

What is abundantly evident is the sheer laziness or uninventive mentality of forgers. Sylvanus Morley’s The Ancient Maya (1946), first edition, was a particularly generous source for them, as it contained a handy list of Maya day glyphs (fig. 18), month signs (fig. 19), glyphs for time periods (fig. 22), Initial Series (fig. 25), and thorough coverage of the Maya calendar (pp. 265–295). The Ratinlixul Vase had its own line drawing too (pl. 88b). Of slightly earlier date was the useful, inexpensive, and widely available edition of Maya codices by the Villacortas in Guatemala (Villacorta and Villacorta 1933).



Figure 6. Copy of images from Uaxactun and the Ratinlixul vase on a forged leather codex (photograph to lower left, copyright Justin Kerr, used with permission).

A final example shows how blatant such copying can be (Figure 6). This codex lifts half of the center ballcourt marker from Copan Ballcourt BII (excavated by Gustav Strømsvik in the 1930s), as well as a frontal image from Palenque’s Temple of the Skull (upper left) and a smattering of full-figure glyphs from Copan Stela D (center left; see Stuart Temple of the Skull); Maudslay 1889–1902:pl. 48).



Figure 6. Fake codex and, at center, image taken from Copan Ballcourt II, center marker (drawing by John Montgomery). 

A few of these documents are in institutions (American Museum of Natural History, no. 30–9530, in a gift of c. 1901–1904, from the Duc de Loubat [Glass 1975:204]; Peabody Museum, Yale University [No. 137880]; Världskulturmuseet, Göteborg [Glass 1975:305]), but most are only known to us by way of unsolicited communications or, for one manuscript, via a glossy facsimile published in Guatemala (Benítez 2005; said to be from Chichicastenango, Guatemala, it even has a supposed radiocarbon date of “BP 200 + 28,” which, by odd arithmetic, the author pushes back to “1650 A.D.” [Benítez 2005:4–5]). Most fakes had two episodes of preparation, beyond the painting itself. Immersion in dirt or (we suspect) cow patties provided the right patina, and then a hurried cleaning gave some visibility for the dupe being invited to purchase the book.

A striking element is that many share elaborate “origin” stories. As a random selection, these concern a now-deceased relative who had traveled in Mexico/Guatemala, etc., a stray find in a Maya town in Guatemala, caves, scuba-diving or, in an example seen by one of us (Houston) in Provo, Utah, an heir wishing to donate the manuscript to a worthy public institution. A few seem to have gone through the hands of the late Pablo Bush Romero, “Mexico’s distinguished diver, self-made scholar and restless millionaire-at-large” (Sports Illustrated 1964). The presence of others of far earlier date, as in that acquired by the Duc de Loubat, show multiple hands behind their manufacture: the temptation to fake such codices clearly had deep roots (Glass 1975:305–306; for the Duc, Loubat obituary). The Yale forgery is described on the museum website as: a “Maya codex purchased in Mexico City, 1905, from an old priest around the corner from the southeast corner of the Alameda. This codex was first shown in 1887; he then declined to sell it, but in 1905, having been so ill that both his legs were amputated, and not expecting to live longer, he offered to sell the codex (to a friend?) of his in Merida who was then a druggist. This codex was examined by Dr. Alfred Tozzer of Harvard University, who considered it a reproduction, partly because the…various day signs were not in the proper Maya order” (Yale codex).

At this point, one of us (Coe) has seen over a dozen such codices. All are supremely unconvincing to the trained eye. The inept painting, ignorance of Maya coloration, slavish (yet scrambled) copying of well-known sources, anachronisms, inattention to decipherments, improvised, ad hoc “signs,” rough preparation and obvious attempts at artificial aging—all characterize these examples, without exception. It is unthinkable that any in this corpus of pictorial failure would pass muster, technical analysis or glyphic and iconographic exegesis.

To understand what is not a fake, as in the Grolier Codex (Coe et al. 2015), we are well-advised to study what is a fake. This rogues’ gallery shows that compelling deceptions of ancient Maya books are easier to claim than to create.



Benítez, Henry. 2005. Códice Chugüilá (1650 d.C.). Guatemala: Editorial Piedra Santa.

Blom, Frans. 1935a. A Checklist of Falsified Maya Codices. Maya Research 2(3):251–252.

______. 1935b. The ‘Gomesta Manuscript’, A Falsification. Maya Research 2(3):233–248.

______. 1946. Forged Maya Codex. The Masterkey 20:18.

Brainerd, George W. 1948. Another Falsified Maya Codex. The Mastery 22:17–18.

Chappell, Duncan, and Kenneth Polk. 2009. Fakers and Forgers, Deception and Dishonesty: An Exploration of the Murky World of Art Fraud. Current Issues in Criminal Justice 20 (3):393–412 (pp. 1–20, online).

Coe, Michael, Stephen Houston, Mary Miller, and Karl Taube. 2015. The Fourth Maya Codex. In Maya Archaeology 3, eds., Charles Golden, Stephen Houston, and Joel Skidmore, 116–167.San Francisco,: Precolumbia Mesoweb Press.

Covarrubias, Miguel. 1957. Indian Art of Mexico and Central America. New York: Knopf.

Danien, Elin. 1997. The Ritual on the Ratinlixul Vase: Pots and Politics in Highland Guatemala. Expedition 39(3):37–48. Danien 1997

Eberl Markus, and Christian Prager. 2000. A Fake Maya BoneMexicon 22(1):5.

Eberl, Markus, and Hanns Prem. 2011. Identifying a Forged Maya Manuscript in UNESCO’s World Digital Library. Ancient Mesoamerica 22(1):155–166.

Gallenkamp, Charles, and Regina E. Johnson. 1985. Maya: Treasures of Ancient Civilization. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Glass, John B. 1975. A Catalog of Falsified Middle American Pictorial Manuscripts. In Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volume 14: Guide to Ethnohistorical Sources, Part 3, ed. Howard F. Cline (assoc. eds., Charles Gibson and H. B. Nicholson), 297–310. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Godley, John R. 1967. Van Meegeren: A Case History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Hanks William F. 1992. The Language of the Canek ManuscriptAncient Mesoamerica 3:269279.

Holroyd, Charles. 1903. Michael Angelo Buonarroti. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Jones, Grant D. 1992. The Canek Manuscript in Ethnohistorical PerspectiveAncient Mesoamerica 3:243268.

Lapatin, Kenneth D. S. 2000. Proof? The Case of the Getty Kouros. Source: Notes in the History of Art 20(1):43–53.

Maudslay, Alfred P. 1889–1902. Biologia Centrali-Americana, or, Contributions to the Knowledge of the Fauna and Flora of Mexico and Central America, vols. 55–9, Archaeology. London: R. H. Porter and Dulau.

Meyer, Karl E. 1973. The Plundered Past: Traffic in Art Treasures. New York: Athenaeum. 

Morley, Sylvanus G. 1946. The Ancient Maya. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Villacorta, J. Antonio C., and Carlos A. Villacorta. 1933. Códices Mayas: Dresdensis— Peresianus—Tro-Cortesianus. Guatemala: Tipografía Nacional.

Von Bothmer, Dietrich, and Joseph V. Noble. 1961. An Inquiry into the Forgery of the Etruscan Terracota Warriors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Papers 11. New York.

Wassén, S. Henry. 1942. A Forged Maya Codex on Parchment: A Warning. Etnologiska Studier 1213:293–304.