Amber and Forgery

If a piece of amber could be guaranteed to have been acquired from an exotic location, such as the distant north, the mythical Eridanus, or the Elektrides islands, or if it embodied one of its more mystical properties—natural luster, powerful magnetism, or particularly impressive inclusions—it would likely have had greater worth as a magical or medicinal item, as well as being more valuable as an ornament. Practically speaking, such a piece would have fetched a much higher price than an unprovenanced or poorer-grade one. Then, as now, the impetus for forgery or false provenance would have been commensurate with price. Roger Moorey, addressing the issue of forgery in relation to blue-colored stones in the ancient Near East, writes that “the desire for rare coloured stones was so great that it stimulated the development of artificial gemstones, made first, before about 2000 B.C., of glazed dull stones or of faïence and increasingly thereafter of glass.”102 It is likely that various tree resins (particularly copal, a hard resin much younger than amber) might have been taken for amber—at least at the time of purchase—either through deliberate deception or because of a genuine misunderstanding.

Of course, because some materials used to imitate amber also possessed, to some degree, the qualities for which amber was prized, they may have been valued in their own right, and it is therefore usually impossible to distinguish cases of successful deception from resins that were never intended as impostors. Tutankhamen’s tomb, for instance, was found to contain various nonamber resin objects.103 Were they forgeries intended to be seen as amber or another high-value resin, or were these materials equally valued for their own sake?

Evidence of other amber-related forgeries in antiquity can be found in Pliny, who discusses the use of amber itself to approximate transparent gemstones, notably amethyst. Pliny also describes a technique for softening amber, a necessary step in clarifying it, and one preliminary to amalgamating small pieces of amber into larger ones, as is still done today. Although there is no extant ancient example of such an amber object, it is a compelling explanation for certain larger works referred to in ancient sources, such as the large drinking vessels mentioned by Juvenal and Apuleius,104 or the statue of Augustus at Olympia described by Pausanias (see “Color and Other Optical Characteristics,” above). What we do have as examples of amalgamated amber pieces are segmented amber fibulae and a few carvings with added patches of amber, held together with glue or by adhesion with oil and heat. fibulae sections were joined with reeds, sometimes covered in metal foil. Today, two pieces of amber may be united by coating their surfaces with linseed oil, heating them, and then pressing them together while still hot.

Probably there was no need to conceal that such pieces were joined or amalgamated, as their craftsmanship was just as impressive as their size. That they were composed of pieces rather than carved from one large chunk of amber would have been generally known, since amalgamation techniques were common in Rome for other media, such as large ivory statues, wood marquetry, and glass. The greatest example of joined amber plaques is the famous Amber Room from Tsarskoje Selo, Russia, now reconstructed. “Compressed” or “mosaic” amber (as it is called today) is often darker and less lustrous than natural amber. Given the immense importance attached to amber’s natural sheen, artificial coloring applied to a high-value object might have been deceptive in much the same way as an inclusion forgery like Martial’s snake. Pliny was aware that good examples of pieces displaying amber’s unique qualities, such as inclusions or brilliance, were valued according to the secret knowledge they seemed to encompass as natural wonders, and he implies as much in his discussion of artificial coloring of amber.

Admittedly, we can only speculate about the exact nature and extent of amber forgery in and before Pliny’s time, but it was an early part of a continuing interest in making amberlike materials for scientific, manufacturing, and aesthetic (as well as more dubious) ends.105 In the early modern period, this interest is documented by no less a figure than Leonardo da Vinci, who describes one recipe for making fake amber from egg whites hardened by heating.106

In China, the high value placed on amber has resulted in counterfeiting since at least about A.D. 500, the date of Tao Hongjing’s book of materia medica. There he warns against false amber and recommends “using the electrostatic ability of amber to attract straw as a means of distinguishing amber from imitations.”107

More recently, significant modern forgeries of ancient amber objects have come to light. These include an “Assyrian” amber statuette of King Ashurnasirpal in Boston108 and the Apollo of Fiumicino (Paris, private collection), made in the early twentieth century, probably by the same carver responsible for the Getty statuette Seated Divinity (figure 25).109

Seated Divinity statuette, modern. Amber, H: 28 cm (11 in.), W (of base): 13.5 cm (5310 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 82.AO.51. Gift of Vasek Polak. See cat. no. 57.
Figure 25
Seated Divinity statuette, modern. Amber, H: 28 cm (11 in.), W (of base): 13.5 cm (5310 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 82.AO.51. Gift of Vasek Polak. See cat. no. 57.

Today, an amber counterfeit such as the Seated Divinity is made with a mixture of modern materials including synthetic resin and plastics, as well as compressed amber and other resins. The interest today in amber forgery—in fake jewelry and fake specimens—is such that many modern publications and websites are available to help identify and distinguish amber, copal, and the wide range of manufactured-amber imitations.


  1. P. R. S. Moorey, “Blue Stones in the Ancient Near East: Turquoise and Lapis Lazuli,” in , pp. 175–88.
  2. For amber in Tutankhamen’s tomb, see S. Hood, “Amber in Egypt,” in , pp. 230–35. Sherratt 1995 (in n. 9, above) p. 203, confirms (and refines) Hood’s stylistic attribution: he compares the necklace of the late Tumulus culture of central Europe (Reinecke Br C) to a necklace from Barrow 2, Grave 13, at Schwarza, Thuringia. D. Warburton (pers. comm., 2001) pointed out the significance of the feminine necklace in the young king’s tomb. , pp. 58–60, discusses material associated with amber in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the ancient Near East, and brings together a critical bibliography. A. Niwinski, “Amber in Ancient Egypt,” in Investigations into Amber: Proceedings of the International Interdisciplinary Symposium, Baltic Amber and Other Fossil Resins, 997 Urbs Gyddanyzc–1997 Gdańsk, 2–6 September 1997, ed. B. Kosmowska-Ceranowicz and H. Paner (Gdańsk, 1999), pp. 115–19, discusses Egyptian terms for resins and cautions against identifying objects as amber without scientific analysis. M. Cultraro, “L’ambre nel mondo mediterraneo: L’Egeo e le aree di contatto,” in , pp. 56–59, also cautions against the identification of amberlike resinous materials without scientific corroboration. For additional views on the existence and use of amber in Egypt, see ; A. Lucas and J. R. Harris, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries (London, 1962); and E. Daumas, “Quelques notes sur l’ambre jaune dans l’ancien Égypte,” Chronique d’Égypte 46 (1971): 60.
  3. Juvenal (Satires 5.38) describes an encrusted amber cup, and Apuleius (Golden Ass 2.2.12, 19) speaks of large cups. , p. 34, refers to a fragmentary Roman amber vessel in Rouen: see Catalogue du Musée de Rouen (Rouen, 1875), p. 99. Although the large vessels could have been carved from exceptionally large chunks of amber, they instead may have been composed of mosaic amber. Pliny (Natural History 37.11) mentions a huge piece weighing thirteen pounds. A piece weighing twenty-seven pounds washed up on the shores of northern Jutland (, p. 50).
  4. For discussion of amber imitations, see, for example, ; and M. Ganzelewski, “Bernstein–Ersatzstoffe und Imitationen,” in , pp. 475–82.
  5. Codex Forster 3, fol. 33v. E. Ragazzi, “Historical Amber/How to Make Amber,” (accessed July 9, 2011), discusses Leonardo’s recipe. Ragazzi cites L. Reti, “Le arti chimiche di Leonardo da Vinci,” La chimica e l’industria 34 (1952): 721–43, and compares the recipe to an earlier one (of circa 1424–56) in a British Museum manuscript. He also refers to B. S. Tosatti, Manoscritto Veneziano: Un manuale di pittura e altre arti—miniatura, incisione, vetri, vetrate e ceramiche—di medicina, farmacopea e alchimia del Quattrocento (Milan, 1991).
  6. Tao Hongjing, Collection of Commentaries on the Divine Husbandman’s Classic of Materia Medica (reference from , p. 279).
  7. O. Muscarella, The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures (Groningen, 2000); and A. T. Olmstead, “Amber Statuette of Ashur-nasir-apal, King of Assyria (885–860 B.C.),” Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) 36 (1938): 78–83.
  8. For the Paris statuette, see references for the Getty statuette Seated Divinity (, cat. no. 57).


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