Sign up for e-News Donate
Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Enigma Variations by Richard and Sally Price

September 1, 2020

Harvard University Press:  Cambridge, MA
1995 (HC)

In 1995, cultural anthropologists Richard and Sally Price, well-established scholars at the College of William and Mary, wrote a slim volume (155 pages) that was part anthropology mystery novel, part a discussion of aboriginal art of northeastern South America, and part a philosophical discourse on authenticity, restoration and forgery of native antiquities.

The story begins with the Prices (they are the protagonists in their own novel) at the graveside ceremony for Jacques-Emile Lafontaine, a pied noir refugee from Algeria by way of Marseilles, who has made his way in life as the purveyor of primitive antiquities in Cayenne, the capital of the mythical South American country of Equatoria.  The storyline then re-winds several years to when Richard and Sally Price, experts the Saramaka and other Maroon peoples of the jungles of Equatoria, have been contracted to appraise and collect native art for the new Musee d’Equatoria, scheduled to open its door in 1992.

Lafontaine had contacted the new Creole director of the Musee, and offered to her a wonderful collection primitive musical instruments and other antiquities he has acquired over the years—all for a handsome price.  Some of the items are referenced back to Captain John Stedman’s 18th Century collection from Suriname and self-referenced in the Price’s 1981 monograph Afro-American Arts of the Suriname Rain Forest.  The Price’s investigation leads them to interview a renowned Saramakan wood carver, whose expertise in indigenous contemporary art as well as primitive antiquities, and in turn leads the Price’s to question the authenticity of Lafontaine’s collection.

Their queries are put on hold when Lafontaine suffers a massive coronary and an extensive political corruption scandal in Cayenne bottles up funding for the museum’s acquisition program and virtually everything else in the jungle frontier capital.  But the husband and wife team cannot find it within themselves to let loose of the questions raised by the Lafontaine collection.  Returning to Princeton University for a spring semester of teaching, the Price’s organize a symposium of experts on the question of authenticity in art.  For Richard and Sally, the ultimate questions boil down to:  is Lafontaine the legitimate dealer of a spectacular collection?  A gifted forger? A tinkerer who excessively repairs and restores antiquities? An accomplice to a forger? Or an innocent fence?

As anthropologists, they are fortunate in being able to interrogate their subject, M. Lafontaine, who is slowly recovering from his heart attack and who intends to leave Equatoria for good, once his health allows.  The convalescing Frenchman holds little back from the Prices as he teases them with his display of restoration tools and his knowledge of reclaiming antiquities.  He readily admits to smuggling, to trading in stolen artifacts—that, in short, he is willing to do almost anything for money.  But has he actually been deceptive?   There can be no doubt but that a great part of Lafontaine’s collection is fabricated to deceive, and the two anthropologists are successful in ferreting out the craftsman who created many of the “antiquities.”

But the Price’s recall a caveat learned in pursuing the question of authenticity in art:  A work of art cannot, in and of itself, be fake; the deception takes place in attributions, labels, and provenance.  Lafontaine maintains that he never deceived; he allowed the avarice and greedy imaginations of his “customers” to, in essence, fill in the empty spaces concerning the artifacts.  The background to Lafontaine’s “confession” are the strains of Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” played on the home-made jerry-rigged sound system constructed by the shadowy Frenchman.  Although the antiquities sales to the museum had been halted, Lafontaine assured the Prices that he had little difficulty finding other buyers for his treasures.

Later that same year, the Prices returned to Cayenne for a colloquium on illegal immigration, only to find that Lafontaine had just passed away from a heart attack—he, in fact, had never left Equatoria.  The reader is brought back full circle to the opening paragraphs of the book, and the eulogist at the graveside, who memorialized the Frenchman for his incredible “generosity.”  Apropos of this book’s title, there is an enigmatic coda to this enchanting and thought-provoking tale.   Four trowels for Enigma Variations.