Sunday, July 1, 2012

Vampire Slaying Kit, Part Three

The saga of the vampire slaying kit offered up by Tennant's Auctioneers continues.

The original posts about it are here and here. Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms for the Royal Armouries, Leeds was kind enough to leave a comment on the followup post pointing to his own discussion of the kit. His take on the authenticity question is worth noting.

Although often claimed to either be made for genuine vampire slayers, or as novelties for travellers to Eastern Europe, this is probably not the case with this piece. I’ve been researching vampire-killing kits for five years, and there is no evidence of their existence prior to 1972, around the time of the famous ‘Hammer’ horror movies. For some people, this makes them ‘fakes’, but is it possible to have a fake if there is no original to copy?

I argue that they are instead ‘invented artefacts’ – movie props without a film. We will be subjecting our kit to some sensitive scientific analysis to see if we can find out more about it, but chances are that it was made relatively recently. This is not a bad thing – museums today collect far more widely than just traditional art and historical pieces, and the level of interest generated by this kit shows how culturally important it is. It’s hard evidence of the undying love people have for supernatural fiction, from Dracula to Twilight and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It also reflects centuries of folklore relating to vampires and the best ways to dispose of them, which for some people, even in the 21st century, remains a frightening reality.

That strikes me as being a reasonable and balanced approach. Vampire hunting kits aren't authentic historical items, but they are objets d'art worthy of appreciation on their own merits. Their value is in the craftsmanship and creativity of their creators. By their very nature they are intended to deceive, but they should never defraud.  That's why the use of the word "authentic" bothers me so much.


bob_d said...

You're right - using the word "authentic" is incredibly problematic. If no original exists of which it's an imitation or forgery, then no context exists in which it can be "authentic," either.
It seems to me that any object that intends to deceive, as soon as you put it up for sale without acknowledging that deception, automatically also intends to defraud. I'd say that describing it as "authentic" absolutely makes it fraudulent in this case.

CoastConFan said...

In the antique business, this class of non-original artifact can sometimes be kindly called a “fantasy piece”. That is a kind of item that is not duplicating exactly any particular piece, but is made specifically to simulate an item, a period & etc. Generally speaking, I have no serious problem with fantasy pieces.

What is important here is intent. If the maker created the item or the seller for the intent to mislead and defraud, then it is a fake. If a person knowingly and purposely sells an item that is not original, then it is a fraud. As a note, the father removed a prop is from the maker and the great the number of transfers in sales, the more “real” things seem to become.

The great danger of fantasy pieces is exploitation of gray areas of originality to try to skirt the law, by creating a simulation or a piece that is of “an unknown” or “previously unencountered” type. The pivot here is ethics. A fantasy piece gives a certain deniability before the law in the case of a lawsuit. That is: if the piece never existed historically, how could it be a fake.

Props, “invented artifacts” and the like, created as art or historical commentary and the like are fine. In fact, I enjoy them a great deal myself. If you mean “deception” as suspension of belief, no matter how brief, yes I agree. A little recreational deception, be it a movie, a play or a prop might even be healthy if it allows you some relaxation or causes you to reexamine an idea.

I do think that the museum could have saved itself thousands of dollars by simply commissioning a fine prop maker to produce such a kit for display. It would have allowed the prop maker some satisfaction at having contributed artistic talent and skill to a museum’s display and given the prop maker some publicity as well.