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Will the real copy cat please stand up?

THERE'S been just a touch of confusion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York - everything managed with perfect taste, of course. It seems that a bronze sculpture of a cat, presumably dating back to Egypt around 300 BC, has been found to be ``probably'' of ``modern manufacture,'' as the museum delicately put it. The X-ray machine hummed, and lo and behold, the bronze proved to be porous - made of copper and lead rather than the ancient alloy of copper and tin.

At a press conference, museum officials made the most humbling confession an art connoisseur can make. Somebody had been snookered. Somebody had been sold a fake.

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Alas, the embarrassment was not over. The next day the museum admitted to a further confusion. Two cats were involved. The taller one, with the straight tail, did indeed ``appear'' to be a forgery. But the one with ``subtly'' curled tail and ears pointed back - and selling for $975 in replica at the museum shop - was genuine. Let all customers with a spare thousand dollars be informed: This cat had stalked the Nile under moonlight and doubtless sniffed with feline skepticism at all imposters of the day, including the Sphinx. Cats do have a way of looking as if everyone (and everything) in the world except themselves is a bit of a fake.

In this respect, we have all become cats nowadays. Never has it seemed more important to sniff out the frauds - not only among bronze Egyptian cats.

Arthur Koestler wrote about a friend who bought what he thought was a limited edition of a Picasso etching and proudly displayed it over the mantel. When he discovered his acquisition was far less select a production, he moved it to an inconspicuous place above the stairs.

Same art - different bragging value.

Koestler took this to be a classic illustration of snobbery. A kinder reading might view the incident as demonstrating the value we place on strict authenticity.

We have to know exactly what colors Michelangelo painted at the time he painted them.

We go to great lengths to play Vivaldi with the instruments limited to his period of composition.

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Nor is our hunger for The Real Thing restricted to the arts.

Among politicians, among evangelists, among our friends, we struggle to distinguish between the bogus and the true-blue.

It gets to be comic.

We use the word ``unique'' more and more, though we often use it incorrectly (as in ``more unique'' and ``most unique''), as if, in love and in life, we don't dare to believe in the one-and-only.

We talk admiringly of a ``signature style'' - this is what we esteem in others and dream of for ourselves. Yet who even uses a pen in this world of the electronic typewriter and the personal computer?

And so we trust in the signatures on designer labels - all profitably mass-produced.

It is our little irony to worship the singular in an age absolutely dependent on the photocopy and dedicated to the clone.

Cursed with wondering who we are - or even if we are - we must, at times, look enviously at our cats, bronze and otherwise, who clearly have never suffered a single crisis of identity in the history of their species.

Amid all the counterfeit ideas - and worse, counterfeit feelings - that cloud up the scene these days, no wonder we try to get our artifacts, at least, straight. Who wants to be taken in by the fake imitation of a real imitation of a cat?

As a museum spokesman said, speaking surely about more than art: ``It's very difficult to prove that something's fake. It's even more difficult to prove something's genuine.''

A Wednesday and Friday column

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