I was initially reluctant to post about the viral image going around Facebook this week showing what appears to be a side-by-side comparison of an ancient Egyptian image of Isis and a metal duplicate of the same from ancient Ecuador. The photo has been circulating for at least four years, and I had assumed that many would quickly recognize it for what it was. I was wrong, and as the number of people writing to me to ask for an explanation grew, I realized I had write something about the image you’ll see below:
The image on the left is a piece of ancient Egyptian art. The image on the right is a hammered sheet metal copy of the same, produced by a local artisan in Ecuador and sold to Father Carlo Crespi (1891-1982) in the late 1960s or early 1970s, according to other appearances of the same item in fringe literature and videos. The Italian-born Catholic priest displayed the item in his three-room museum at the Church of Maria Auxiliadora in Cuenca, Ecuador alongside hundreds of other modern forgeries that he believed demonstrated that Babylonians and Egyptians were the first inhabitants of what is today Ecuador.
So, silly me, I shared with some people on Facebook that the Ecuadoran image was from the Crespi collection, which prompted queries asking for proof that Father Crespi’s absurd grouping of modern forgeries was in fact made up of fakes. Here’s where things got interesting. I wasn’t able to immediately provide that information. Neither Skeptical Inquirer nor The Skeptic’s Dictionary had entries for Crespi, and nearly everything written about him online comes from fringe writers. So it seems that a few facts about Father Crespi’s “artifacts” are in order.
Father Crespi’s artifacts were nothing more than a local curiosity in Ecuador—encouraged by a government looking to instill pride in the country as the cradle of civilization—until ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken showed up to do research for his third book, Gold of the Gods (1972). A local named Juan Móricz had come to believe that the stories that people were telling about Father Crespi’s cache of golden objects of ancient provenance had lent credence to an idea he developed that impressive natural caves in Ecuador were actually artificial, and had been built by a lost race of giants, who stuffed them full of their treasures. He invited von Däniken to write about the wonders of this cave, and von Däniken later admitted to Playboy magazine that he fabricated his account of his visit to this cave. I’ve told that story before. However, Móricz also took von Däniken to visit the elderly Father Crespi, and it was his account of Crespi’s gold in Gold of the Gods that turned the artifacts into a global phenomenon.
In Gold, von Däniken asserts that Crespi’s treasures came from the cave Móricz had found and that it is the “biggest gold treasure” found underground in South America. He claimed that there was a room of stone artifacts, one of mixed precious metals of Incan vintage, and one of antediluvian “gold and pure gold.” “You have to be very strong-willed not to get ‘gold-drunk,’” von Däniken wrote, and he gushed that Crespi had confessed that his gold hoard predated Noah’s Flood!
These claims did not go unchallenged. Shortly after the publication of Gold of the Gods the German magazine Der Spiegel published a major issue in 1973 devoted to exposing Erich von Däniken’s “swindle,” and in it they interviewed Juan Móricz, the local Ecuadoran who introduced von Däniken to the supposed cave of golden alien artifacts. In 1974, von Däniken admitted to Playboy that he had not been in the cave (and still later he recanted his confession). Anyway, Móricz was also responsible for taking our author to visit Father Crespi to view his collection. Der Spiegel asked Móricz about the artifacts after the magazine had determined that pieces were fraudulent. Móricz concurred, in my translation:
SPIEGEL: In Cuenca, you showed him the collection of Father Crespi. Did you not warn him of the many fake pieces?
Von Däniken would later accuse Móricz of lying to discredit him. But that wasn’t all. The previous year, in 1972, Der Spiegel had reported that a scholar named Dr. Hartmann had viewed the artifacts and determined that while there were a few genuine pre-Hispanic stone pieces, most of the metal ones were forgeries made from tin and brass, including a large number of tourist trinkets. Anton Graf Preising concurred that there were a few valuable items among the mounds of forgeries. Danish archaeologist Olaf Holm said that the elderly Crespi wasn’t able to tell tin from silver, or brass from gold.
In a second 1973 piece from the same issue attacking von Däniken’s “swindle,” Der Spiegel noted that von Däniken seemed oblivious to the fact that the artifacts he once labeled confidently as “gold” were nothing more than imitation gold, made from sheet metal, copper, brass, and tin, happily calling them gold one minute and the next declaring their exact metallic content irrelevant:
The sheet metal and brass that he finds in the backyard of the Church of Maria Auxiliadora of Father Carlo Crespi is for him gold—and subjectively for him at that moment it really is gold. Däniken is not a fraudster. However, later he can, without hesitation and without concern, implausibly wipe away any reference to the tinny facts: “I do not know whether there is gold or not; what is important are the engraved characters.” (my trans.)
After this was exposed, von Däniken changed his tune and admitted later that year in In Search of Ancient Gods that the artifacts were “brass, copper, sheet-metal, zinc, tin and wooden objects, and in the midst of them all pure gold.” He admitted, too, that Father Crespi was suffering from what we would today call dementia (James Randi recalled that in the 1960s Crespi was already frail, confused, and believed Hannibal brought elephants to Ecuador), but von Däniken claimed that there was a secret core of genuine artifacts amid all the locally made crap.
Weirdly enough, this was pretty much all that was said about Father Crespi for a while. The German pieces made little impact on this side of the Atlantic, and von Däniken’s rebuttal wouldn’t be translated into English for several years, reaching most readers in a 1982 paperback edition. In 1976, Ronald Story, writing in The Space Gods Revealed, an exposé of von Däniken, reported that archaeologist Pino Turolla had traveled to Crespi’s museum and investigated the artifacts found therein. “Turolla has seen the little factory clearing where, he says, the stuff is actually made” from tin, sheet metal, and other pieces of detritus. Worse, Turolla had told the Miami News that he figured out exactly what some of the objects were made from: plumbing supplies. “Once I recognized a copper toilet bowl float in Father Crespi’s collection.” Turolla went on to give a full account of his adventures with Father Crespi in his 1980 book Beyond the Andes.
It turns out that all of this could have been avoided had von Däniken just asked James Randi about Father Crespi’s collection. I turns out that in the 1960s, at least five years before von Däniken tramped through, Randi had traveled to Ecuador and Peru in search of the same fictitious “treasure cave” and had also paid a call on Father Crespi, who was happy to show him his collection. Writing in The Flim-Flam! (1980), Randi recalled the scene:
I was speechless: not for the same reason as von Däniken, however. The collection was a total, unmitigated fraud from wall to wall. Scraps of tin cans, brass sheets, and copper strips abounded, mixed with piles of rusted chains, shards of armor, and bits of miscellaneous machinery. Some of the brass sheets were embossed and scratched with everything from elephants to dinosaurs. […] I came across a copper float for a toilet tank and an embossed tin can on which the words “product of Argentina” were still visible.
Yes, the toilet float was there in the 1960s and stayed for almost twenty years! (To be entirely honest, the correspondence between Randi’s visit to Crespi and Turolla’s is rather astonishing.)
Randi found a single golden object, apparently reworked from an ancient piece that had been looted and hammered into a new shape to escape antiquities laws, and then impressed with a crude depiction of a pyramid and flying snakes. That gold object appears in Gold of the Gods.
Crespi told both Turolla and Randi that he paid the locals in money, clothes, and indulgences to bring him “artifacts” and had told them that he believed that the Egyptians and Babylonians had settled the Andes. Not surprisingly, local artisans delivered to him imitations of Egyptian and Babylonian art, often copied from books. Crespi, whom Randi felt was gullible and deluded, seemed to have difficulty telling the difference between gold, copper, and tin even in the 1960s, and according to Olaf Holm, that only grew worse by the 1970s.
But thanks to von Däniken, Crespi became a folk hero to fringe history believers, and today you will find not just people who consider him a sort of martyr to diffusionism but also people who think that he was Adolf Hitler, escaped from Germany to preserve the Nazis’ secret knowledge of earth’s true heritage in remote Ecuador. That theory was promoted as early as 1997 by Sean David Morton, the self-described psychic who was charged with fraud, claimed a fake Ph.D., and mysteriously disappeared from Ancient Aliens. He, of course, is now a fringe radio host. It apparently originates with Col. Wendell Stephens, who in 1981 met Crespi and decided he was Hitler, according to fringe sources. But of that part of the story, I know nothing more.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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