If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the workshop at Agios Ioannis Rentis overflows with compliments to ancient Greek art. Here, in the southern suburbs of Athens, Greece, artisans create faithful copies of the Venus de Milo, a famed bust of Alexander the Great, and the Artemision Bronze. (Scholars debate whether the last depicts the Greek god Zeus or his seafaring brother, Poseidon.)
The statues eventually find their way to gift shops at sites including the Acropolis in Athens and the Archaeological Museum of Sparta. The replicas also go on display in museums in Greece and worldwide, as well as in public spaces including a Doha, Qatar, subway station, where a ringer for the armless bronze charioteer of Delphi greets commuters.
Figures in marble and bronze are some of the glorious remains of a powerful civilization that lasted from the 12th century B.C. to A.D. 600, and whose influence resonates to this day. Every year tourists come to Greece to marvel at the Parthenon’s caryatids in Athens or the lions on the island of Delos. Thanks to this workshop, established by the Greek ministry of culture, visitors often leave with a piece inspired by the past to decorate their foyer or office. Scholars also use the copies for study.
The workshop was established in the 1970s to both promote Greece’s ancient heritage and to give souvenir seekers something to buy besides bad copies, or fakes masquerading as the real thing. A portion of the proceeds from their sale benefits historic preservation. “Our work travels around the world,” says Maria Zafeiri, a caster at the workshop for 30 years. “It’s exciting when our statues end up in a museum and thousands of eyes admire them. It brings even more visitors to Greece.”
Although the space at Agios Ioannis Rentis isn’t open to the public, I was allowed rare access to the workshop to learn how—and why—these legal forgeries are made.
On the top floor of the workshop, amid angel wing begonias and replicas of gods, monsters, and ordinary people, a team of 15 painters, sculptors, and refinishers produces dozens of casts each week. They work from master copies of the ancient originals, done at museums or archaeological sites. Artisans coat the original statues in soap or a layer of aluminum foil before encasing them in layers of plaster or clay.
Back at the workshop, those resulting casts are used to create silicon molds which are then filled with a mixture of plaster and hemp fibers. Larger works—that life-size Artemision figure, for example—are cast in multiple pieces and then glued together.
After an Aphrodite, Hermes, or sphinx emerges from its silicone mold, the resulting statue air-dries for about a week. Workers then clean and smooth it, brushing off scratches, sanding down air bubbles, and plastering over small cracks. The statues are painted (by brush or sprayer) to resemble marble or bronze and embellished with “oxidations and patina that make them look just like the originals,” says Stelios Gavalas, a sculptor and director of the workshop. “Creating a copy of an ancient work of art is true magic, and the excitement never goes away.”
The workshop currently reproduces facsimiles of 800 different artifacts. The copies mostly end up at gift shops around the country. Prices start at 20 euros ($24) for a small Cycladic figurine and go as high as 10,000 euros ($11,560) for a copy of the Hermes of Praxiteles.
Museums also commission the workshop to make copies of artworks, including the Artemision bronze at China’s Changchun World Sculpture Park. Twins of the Venus de Milo and other iconic figures headline at the Tactual Museum in Athens, where visually impaired visitors use touch to explore classical art.
A long history of copies
Making copies of ancient Greek statues isn’t new. The Romans, who lionized the Hellenic culture they’d conquered, carved many marble replicas of the Greek originals, which were usually cast in bronze.
Archaeologists and craftspeople began taking plaster casts of ancient Greek sculptures shortly after the National Archaeological Museum in Athens opened in 1829. “The first casts created were not for commercial reasons, but for scientific ones. Scholars wanted to study the ancients,” says Gavalas. “Later everyone wanted statues to decorate their places.”
“There was an enormous production of forged artifacts after the mid-19th century,” says Anna Mykoniati, a Greek art historian and author of the book Fake Antiquities.
Take Tanagra statues, which the workshop reproduces now. After these small terra-cotta figurines of women and mythical beings were discovered in graves north of Athens in 1860, both looted originals and sloppily produced fakes were sold to tourists. “They are elegant women with nice clothes, nicknamed ‘the Parisians of ancient times,’” says Mykoniati. “Everyone wanted a Tanagra figurine in their house, above the fireplace. They were in all European living rooms.”
Some copies of ancient statues were terrible, but other forgeries were so precise they ended up in places like the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In 2018, Getty curators determined its prize Kouros statue—reputed to date from 650 to 480 B.C. and purchased for $6 million—was probably a fake, and removed it from view. “There are methods to fool the experts. You can age clay, marble, almost anything,” Mykoniati says.
She and other scholars say that such illegal forgeries negatively impact the reputation of Greek culture. “Fakes create a false image of the past,” she says. “They hinder scientific research and distort it.”
Fakes versus replicas
But aren’t Gavalas and his workshop also producing fakes? “I think the difference between a fake and a replica is intent,” says Nancy Moses, author of Fakes, Forgeries and Frauds. “There are knockoffs of Chanel suits and designer bags, but that becomes fraud [when] someone tells you they’re real.”
The workshop’s crew of painters, casters, and other craftspeople specializes in “nothing more than copying, in the best possible way, the lustiness, the beauty, and the creativity seen on the art of the ancient Greeks,” says Gavalas.
The Athens workshop feeds the desire of travelers to own something lovely, to pack up (or ship home) a memento of their visit to take back into their daily world. “A good replica can extend your trip,” says Moses. “It’s similar to a photograph of yourself while on vacation, it brings you back to that beautiful day at the Acropolis.”