By David Lowenthal

The craving for authenticity is widespread, above all in heritage conservation. It denotes the true as opposed to the false, the real rather than the fake, the original, not the copy, the honest against the corrupt, the sacred instead of the profane. These virtues persuade us to treat authenticity as an absolute value, eternal and unshakable. Yet authenticity is, in fact, in continual flux, its defining criteria subject to ceaseless change.

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The standards by which we gauge it change over time, with circumstance, place, and culture. Authenticity, once focused on performance and possession, has given way to authenticity of materials and form, of structure and process, and of aim and intent, moving from exclusive concerns with buildings and artifacts to broader considerations of landscape and nature, folklife and folklore, ideas and beliefs.

In the realm of heritage, authenticity becomes as fragile and evanescent as it is pervasive. Popular fascination with antiquity and art erodes not only authentic fabric and ambience but public faith in the very concept of authenticity. Dismayed by the seedy commodification of "authentic" Sarlat-la-Canéda, one of France's first protected heritage towns, a recent visitor preferred Lascaux II's replicated Cro-Magnon paintings nearby. The attrition of atmosphere and context had utterly demeaned the "authentic" Sarlat; the real thing was now far less soul inspiring than the virtual reality of Lascaux II. Restoration likewise subverts the authentic—even the cognoscenti kill what they love. "How many Baroque churches," asks Letizia Franchina in Italy, "have been destroyed in the name of authenticity?" Overuse mocks the very word. "This gem is a fake!" judges a jeweler. "But it came with a certificate of authenticity!" protests the purchaser. "That should have been your first tip-off."

Authority and Veracity

Authenticity is an ancient concept of ever-changing meaning, functions, and criteria. In architectural relics and objects of art, heritage veracity has variously attached to materials and forms, to origins, to the fame or notoriety of the owners of such works, and to erosions and restorations. In one epoch, authenticating the maker makes a work genuine; in another, ownership credentials may be the prime consideration. Newly found or discredited evidence about motives or techniques, age, or provenance again and again reclassifies relics and monuments as "fake" or "authentic."

The word authentic conflates Greek and Latin terms for authoritative and original. Through late medieval times, authority and originality were entitled to credence, respect, and obedience. Things were trustworthy if they came from someone in authority. Authenticity accrued a legal cachet, as with "old deeds under authentic seals." Scriptural texts were commended as authentic, thanks to their incontrovertibly sacred authorship.

Early modern Europeans held things to be authentic because "authorities" told them so, because of their supernatural manifestations, and because faith was shown to be efficacious. Christian relics were authenticated not by proofs of origin but by their begetting of miracles. No one in the 15th century would have thought to date the Shroud of Turin; being widely revered made it ipso facto authentic. Sacred relics remained credible, despite their multiplication; five churches treasured the authentic head of John the Baptist, fourteen the true foreskin of Christ. Luther's gibe that 300 men could not have carried all reputed fragments of the True Cross left Catholics unperturbed, since it was capable of perpetual regeneration. Infinite replication, a miracle ordained by a 6th-century bishop of Jerusalem, ensured an inexhaustible supply of authentic holy souvenirs.

Many moderns find this early faith in sacred bones and artifacts bizarre. How could folk have accepted the authenticity of those multiple heads and foreskins, those veritable forests of the True Cross? The forging of relics was long a major industry. Even in the late 19th century, a papal inventory revealed that tenfold as many "authentic" relics had been repurchased within 30 years of monastic dispossession as had been expropriated. Yet believers were neither foolish nor deluded. Authenticity to them meant something other than it does now, requiring other kinds of proof. Conflicting or contrary evidence that is now patent was earlier seldom to hand. Little-traveled and ill-informed about other lands, people lacked the opportunities for comparison that are today taken for granted.

To authenticate the origins and provenances of relics was pointless when holy relics were by their very nature capable of miraculous removal and replacement. Modern criteria of materials, form, process, provenance, and intentionality scarcely mattered. What made a relic authentic was less what it was than what it did. The miracles that relics engendered proved them authentic. But authenticity demanded continuing activity—a relic that remained too long inert ceased to inspire the awe needed to sustain credibility.

From Faith to Fact

The rise of science added sense criteria to articles of faith. By the Enlightenment, authentic came to mean veridically genuine, as opposed to forged or apocryphal. Standards of critical evidence, triggered by the dispersal of printed books, transformed notions of truth. Once scholars had access to variant sources, they saw that "authentic" principles of Biblical scripture and Roman law, once supposed innately pure, were in fact barnacled with later accretions and perversions. Comparative criticism disclosed the biases of ancient authors, manifold views at odds with timeless Church ideals, and classical realities often grossly repugnant to modern culture.

Although much that had previously been deemed authentic was now dethroned as false, fakes proliferated more than ever. The 17th and 18th centuries were as remarkable for fabricating new as for exposing old forgeries. By the 19th century, verbal and visual images in history and fiction, paintings and prints, brought the past to life for mass audiences as never before. But the popularity of these surrogate images undermined the authenticity of the originals. The term authentic began to take on the angst that continues to corrode it today. Journals referred to "authentic documents artfully copied." Replica makers touted their "expert copies" against the "base imitations" of rival manufacturers, while customers simultaneously decried and lauded artificers' skillful deceptions.

Verisimilitude was now so commonly contrived that authenticity came to be termed something untampered with, natural, not artificial—the very virtue things fashioned to seem authentic lacked. Plein air sketches, eyewitness accounts, scrupulously restored buildings, and unembellished histories exalted "reality" that was intended to transcend artifice.

Above all, authenticity reflected public trust that material things, unlike words, did not lie. Scholars familiar with textual forgeries and corruptions hailed material relics as more trustworthy witnesses; the verbal chronicler was venial or parti pris, while the anatomist of antiquities was free from bias. Many archaeologists continue to trumpet artifacts as more authentic than texts, more honest because less apt to be contrived.

Vain hope! That artifacts are no less altered than chronicles is now abundantly evident. Yet public faith in the veracity of material objects lingers; what can be seen and touched must be true. Here they are, they seem to say; you cannot doubt your senses. At the same time, the sanctity long linked with physical relics makes their faking especially repugnant.

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Nineteenth-century technologies stepped up demands for authenticity. Growing knowledge of the past and skill in its delineation commanded ever-more-convincing illusions of reality. And laboratory provenance and dating superseded revelation and miracles as criteria of authenticity. Expert scrutiny of sites and structures, archives, and contextual data confirmed or denied authenticity. Yet professionals continued to parade their own biases as authentic truths.

From Substance to Form to Folkways

Most recently, the global growth of heritage has compelled awareness of cultural differences in the meaning of authenticity. Over the past decade, global heritage agencies—ICOMOS, ICCROM, ICOM, and the World Heritage Organization—have fundamentally revised authenticity criteria. Guidelines laid down a generation ago in the Venice Charter became increasingly problematic as heritage concern expanded beyond its west European heartland to embrace countries and cultures the world over. Above all, authenticity of material substance was of less moment where heritage structures were apt to be built of wood, generally less durable than stone. For example, in Norway and Japan, heritage conservation focused not on preserving original substance but on rebuilding with new materials while keeping traditional techniques and forms.

Modes of cleaving to truth, however, have undergone a major shift. To retrieve the true past, the 19th century consciously altered it; today's conservators try to abstain from doing so. Whereas Victorian restorers openly lent history their help, the genius of past epochs is now supposed to reveal itself unaided. Interventions to improve old buildings, artifacts, or musical performances by purifying or updating them are condemned as inauthentic.

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Elsewhere, most weight was accorded to nonmaterial aspects of heritage, such as language, religion, music, and dance. Fidelity of spirit took precedence over survival of substance where little was built to endure. As Poland's Olgierd Czerner put it, the Venice Charter "leaves other cultures and traditions ill at ease; they place more emphasis on authenticity of thought than on material symbols." As a result of reconsiderations agreed to at international meetings in Bergen, Nara, San Antonio, and elsewhere, culturally diverse choices have replaced canonical homogeneity in judging what is authentic in World Heritage site nominations.

From Fixed and Founding Moments to Historical Palimpsests

Broadly speaking, however, new ways of viewing and relating to a host of pasts engender more nuanced and sophisticated criteria of gauging truth, whether in artifacts, archives, or accounts. Authenticity now inheres not simply in some original source, some founding moment, some first structure, but in entire historical palimpsests and in the very processes of temporal development. No longer is truth innate to the oldest remains, earliest forms, autochthonous creations, steadfast continuities. It inheres instead in the whole stream of time that continually reshapes every object and idea, structure and symbol.

Authenticity of materials, of pattern, of context, or of intention increasingly valorizes heritage not only at the moment of its presumed beginning but at every stage of its development, including its attrition and decay. Instead of stripping away time's accretions and accidents to reveal some ur-form, we esteem all its ongoing traces. This perspective is not novel—its roots go back at least two centuries. But it is now more than ever accepted. And it calls for skills and insights—and mandates actions and obligations—different from and more complex than in past heritage stewardship.

The shift from original state to historical palimpsest varies with locale, culture, and heritage medium. Its best-famed antecedents lie in the Victorian "anti-scrape" movement. Appalled by destruction committed in the name of authenticity by restorers bent on returning cathedrals and churches to idealized Gothic "purity," connoisseurs like John Ruskin and William Morris insisted that old buildings not be tampered with, save for rudimentary repair. Buildings were integral organic beings that must inexorably succumb to age and decay. What was authentic about them was the entire record of the changes they had endured.

Landscape compages more slowly gained value as authentic palimpsests embodying remnants of changes over time. Only in the 1950s did British conservators decide to preserve the medieval tithe barn, lying athwart the earthworks of prehistoric Avebury, as a welcome addition to the historical compage, rather than as an intrusive later element in a more ancient scene. Archaeologists, too, no longer scrape away remnants of later legacies to reveal earlier layers of occupance, as was commonly done in Schliemann's time.

Caveats of Continuity and Change

This shift of values stimulates but also lumbers heritage stewards with manifold perplexities. Are all historic alterations equally sacrosanct? How can authenticity accommodate incompatible recent additions too risky or costly to do away with, as with 20th-century plumbing and heating elements in a 14th-to-16th-century wool merchant's house in Lavenham in Suffolk, England?

Varying extents of obliteration or levels of damage affect restoration options to differing degrees. Utterly demolished by the Nazis, Warsaw's historic center was speedily replicated in toto, to affirm Polish national identity and to retrieve familiar scenes with a minimum period of hiatus. The general semblance of the old cityscape mattered more than scrupulous fidelity to original or reconstructed details. In contrast, Hungarians restored only those buildings in the old Buda castle precinct that had been left more or less intact, while filling vacated spaces with compatible new structures. To build replicas alongside surviving old structures would have seemed inauthentic.

While living continuity in today's heritage-conscious world challenges earlier preserved-in-amber authenticity ideals, not all heritage should alter in conformity with the flux of events. Sites commemorating specific battles or massacres, arrivals, or discoveries lose their poignancy if historical change occludes the critical moment; an authentic aura demands a semblance of some particular date. At Oradour-sur-Glane, in western France, the empty village is kept as it was just after the June 1944 S.S. massacre of all its inhabitants, rusting cars and decaying houses simulating initial decrepitude. Keeping an authentic semblance of a specific moment convincingly recalls the tragedy.

Increasingly, though, authenticity inheres in processes of change, mutabilities of time and history, continuities enlivened as much by alteration as by persistence. But even as we acknowledge these new ideals, we should continue to respect the old stabilities that inspired our precursors. In the course of tracing these and other changes, we may be tempted to debunk previous criteria of authenticity. But our successors will see us as no less naive and credulous than we see those who came before us. Each generation views authenticity in a new guise, reflecting its new needs for truth, new standards of evidence, and new faiths in the uses of heritage.

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David Lowenthal is emeritus professor at University College London and visiting professor of heritage studies at St. Mary's University College, Strawberry Hill, England. He helped organize the 1990 British Museum exhibition on fakes and participated in UNESCO/ICOMOS/World Heritage workshops on authenticity in Bergen, Norway, and Nara, Japan. He is the author of The Past Is a Foreign Country, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, and George Perkins March, Prophet of Conservation.