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Real or Fake

Real or Fake: Studies in Authentication

Joe Nickell
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Real or Fake
    Book Description:

    Will the rare autographed baseball your great-uncle gave you put your children through college? Is your grandmother's chest of drawers really a seventeenth-century antique, or merely a reproduction? A leader in forgery detection and forensic investigation, Joe Nickell reveals his secrets to detecting artifacts items in Real or Fake: Studies in Authentication.

    Detailing how the pros determine whether an Abraham Lincoln signature is forged or if a photograph of Emily Dickinson is genuine, Nickell provides the essential tools necessary to identify counterfeits. In this general introduction to the principles of authentication, Nickell provides readers with step-by-step explanations of the science used to detect falsified documents, photographs, and other objects. Illustrating methods used on hit shows such as Antiques Roadshow and History Detectives, Nickell recommends that aspiring investigators employ a comprehensive approach to identifying imitations. One should consider the object's provenance (the origin or derivation of an artifact), content (clues in the scene or item depicted), and material composition (what artifacts are made of), as well as the results of scientific analyses, including radiographic, spectroscopic, microscopic, and microchemical tests.

    Including fascinating cases drawn from Nickell's illustrious career, Real or Fake combines historical and scientific investigations to reveal reproductions and genuine objects. Nickell explains the warning signs of forgery, such as patching and unnatural pen lifts; chronicles the evolution of writing instruments, inks, and papers; shows readers how to date photographs, papers, and other materials; and traces the development of photographic processes since the mid-nineteenth century. Lavishly illustrated with examples of replicas and authentic objects inspected by Nickell, Real or Fake includes case studies of alleged artifacts including Jack the Ripper's diary, a draft of the Gettysburg Address, notes by Charles Dickens, Jefferson Davis's musket, and debris from the Titanic.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7330-6
    Subjects: Law, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-12)

    The distant past presents us with countless mysteries that challenge our collective intellect and imagination. Time typically obscures the contexts, erases the links, and removes the ancillary evidence that would allow us to fully comprehend ancient events. Yet the past can also yield fragments—even whole treasures—that serve as clues, pieces of the puzzles that engage us.

    For years, I have kept a file labeled “The Recovered Past.” Here are some examples of the clippings it contains.

    “Found: A Legendary City that History Forgot” (1995) reports on a remarkable discovery by a team of archaeologists led by UCLA’s Giorgio...

  6. Part I. Documents

      (pp. 15-38)

      Just as a talented impersonator can mimic a person’s voice or mannerisms, a skillful forger can convincingly simulate someone else’s handwriting. To uncover such fakery, ancient or modern, the document sleuth must grasp all aspects of writing, including its evolution (see figure 1.1). The following discussion is not meant to replace more detailed treatises such as Albert S. Osborn’sQuestioned Documents(1978) or my ownPen, Ink, & Evidence(1990) andDetecting Forgery(1996a). This introduction to writing materials, handwriting identification, warning signs of forgery, and the detection of nonforgery fakes is intended to acquaint the student with some of...

      (pp. 39-52)

      Sometime in 1991, the purported diary of one of the world’s most maniacal serial killers surfaced. If genuine, the volume solved the century-old mystery of London’s Whitechapel murders, proving that the fiend known as “Jack the Ripper” had been a fifty-year-old cotton merchant from Liverpool, James Maybrick. But was it real or fake? (See figure 2.1.)

      A series of grisly murders took place in London’s East End in 1888. Although it is inaccurate, as sometimes reported, that they “all occurred in the ‘Whitechapel area’” (Wilson 1989, 35), the first three slayings did take place in that district, inspiring the label...

      (pp. 53-66)

      A fascinating literary mystery surfaced in 2001 when the distinguished scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.—chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University—purchased at auction a 300-page holographic manuscript (one written in the author’s own handwriting; see figure 3.1). Its title page read, “The Bondwoman’s Narrative / By Hannah Crafts / A Fugitive Slave / Recently Escaped from North Carolina.” Gates (2002a, xii) immediately recognized that “if the author was black, then this ‘fictionalized slave narrative’—an autobiographical novel apparently based upon a female fugitive slave’s life in bondage in North Carolina and her escape to freedom...

      (pp. 67-79)

      Six score and seven years after Lincoln’s famed address at Gettysburg, a copy of it surfaced. Had the Holy Grail of American manuscripts been discovered at last, or was the document too good to be true?

      As an essential historical document relating to American freedom, as well as an admired example of profound oratory, the address given by President Lincoln when he dedicated the national cemetery at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, would be priceless. If the final draft, or reading copy, were discovered, it would be, stated David Warren (1990–1991), “a national treasure.”

      Artist and renowned Lincoln collector...

      (pp. 80-91)

      A jail notebook containing the purported writings of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid and his nemesis Pat Garrett surfaced more than a century after Billy’s death. It was certainly a sensational item, and I was commissioned to determine whether it was real or fake.

      Billy the Kid was a common outlaw—a rustler, horse thief, and gunfighter—with an engaging personality. His brief and tragic life (1859–1881) made him the stuff of legend. Born in New York City as Henry McCarty, he moved west with his family as a teenager. He later took the name of his stepfather, becoming...

    • Chapter 6 OUT OF THE ARCHIVES
      (pp. 92-106)

      Not all cases of questioned historical writings are as sensational as the ones examined thus far, but even lesser documents and manuscripts can have great significance to the collector, archivist, and historian. They can present puzzles as profound as any and deserve their “day in court.” Here is a selection of such cases from my files.

      As indicated in the previous chapter, anything sold by the notorious forger Mark Hofmann carries the taint of suspicion—one that many have ignored at their peril. For example, just two weeks after Hofmann was arrested for murders he had committed in an attempt...

  7. Part II. Photographs

    • Chapter 7 PHOTO SLEUTHING
      (pp. 109-122)

      The first successful photographs were taken in 1839, and by the mid-nineteenth century, photography had become commonplace. Following the introduction of the Brownie camera in 1900, anyone could take a snapshot. As photos proliferated, so did the questions they eventually posed: Who were the individuals in those antique family photos? Where and when were they made?

      Photographs may raise many questions for the historical detective, but in terms of authentication, there are primarily two issues: (1) Is a given photograph authentic (that is, is it a genuine original, a copy, or a deliberate fake)? (2) Is the person in the...

      (pp. 123-129)

      Sporadically since 1961, a controversy has flared over the “other” photograph of Emily Dickinson. Whereas history had seemed to bequeath only a single photograph of the poet—a daguerreotype of her at about seventeen years of age—a newly discovered portrait claims to depict her at about age twenty-nine (see figure 8.1). Many were persuaded that it was indeed Dickinson, and it was even reproduced as a frontispiece to volume two of Richard B. Sewall’sThe Life of Emily Dickinson(1974), although the caption left open the question of its authenticity. I was asked by Georgiana Strickland, editor of the...

      (pp. 130-142)

      Just as autographs and manuscripts of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) are much sought after, so are his photographs. Although some Lincolncartes de visitewere reproduced in quantity both before and after his assassination and are modestly priced, scarcer images are sought by serious collectors. Hope of finding such treasures is kept alive by discoveries such as the one at a Nashville garage sale, where a woman purchased what would prove to be the second-oldest known Lincoln photo. She sold the picture to Daniel Weinberg, owner of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago, who was able to trace it...

      (pp. 143-154)

      Do photographs and videotapes of the assassin of President John F. Kennedy really depict ex-marine Lee Harvey Oswald, as the public has been led to believe? Or do they actually show a look-alike, a professional whose job it was to kill the president of the United States?

      The allegations are fantastic. They were advanced in 1977 by retired British solicitor Michael Eddowes in his bookThe Oswald File(see figure 10.1). He wrote that he would “endeavor to prove beyond reasonable doubt” the following claims: first, that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave the order for the Soviet Secret Police to...

    • Chapter 11 FROM THE ALBUM
      (pp. 155-162)

      The foregoing cases illustrate some important methodologies for investigating questionable photographic images. Here are three more cases from my files, involving the identity card photo of an alleged Nazi war criminal, the photograph of a humble Civil War soldier, and a sensational film supposedly proving extraterrestrial visitations.

      Among my most significant cases was that of accused Nazi death-camp guard John Demjanjuk, which is treated at length in myUnsolved History(2005, 37–50). The question of the authenticity of an SS identification card photo (see figure 11.1) was a life-or-death one when I was brought into the case. Demjanjuk had...

  8. Part III. Other Artifacts

      (pp. 165-175)

      All products of human workmanship are calledartifacts.They include documents and photographs (already discussed) as well as a bewildering variety of other items both prehistoric (such as Stone Age tools) and historic (such as millstones or spinning wheels). All provide tangible links with the past and can help fill in the gaps in humankind’s knowledge. Observed one writer (Mills 1973, 6–7):

      History, the total story of mankind, comes to life for us when we can see and study the treasures man has left behind in his journey through time. The word “treasure” usually evokes images of jewels and...

    • Chapter 13 LOST ICON FOUND
      (pp. 176-181)

      This intriguing little case came my way in 1982, but its story began in World War II with a fire-damaged religious icon that had reportedly been taken from Poland (see figure 13.1). The man who owned it wished to return it to that country through Pope John Paul II. But when questions were raised about its origins, my forensic colleague John F. Fischer and I took the case.

      The owner, George Chesney of Orlando, Florida, told this story of the icon’s provenance, writing in 1979 to the apostolic delegation in Washington, D.C.:

      This may sound a bit fictitious, but [it]...

      (pp. 182-190)

      In 1995 I was commissioned by a historical society to investigate the authenticity of an antique firearm that purportedly belonged to Jefferson Davis (see figure 14.1), president of the Confederate States of America (CSA). What were the true facts about this potentially rare piece of Americana? And how did they fit into the context of historical firearms—questioned and otherwise?

      Firearms represent a highly specialized—and popular—field of collecting. Interest in them ranges from early blunderbusses (short guns with flared muzzles) and muskets (long-barreled guns that lack rifling) to long rifles (including those termed Pennsylvania or Kentucky rifles). Firearms...

      (pp. 191-203)

      At the time, it was “the greatest marine disaster in history” (Marshall 1912, 1). When the 46,328-ton cruise shipTitanicsank in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, there were more than 2,200 people on board. Only about 700 were rescued. Many of the recovered bodies were buried in cemeteries in Halifax, Nova Scotia (which I visited in August 1998 to give a talk to the Canadian Society of Forensic Science). (See figure 15.1.) Some debris were also recovered, dubbed “floating relics” (Lynch 1992, 178). In 1998 I was commissioned to examine three artifacts bearing labels identifying them as...

    • Chapter 16 OFF THE SHELF
      (pp. 204-217)

      The list of potentially questioned artifacts is endless, ranging from an antique abacus to a Zulu shield. Here is a miscellany of other cases from my files, each instructive in its own way.

      Collecting Civil War memorabilia began during the war itself, when soldiers—like those in every war—retained small mementos of places and events. During the 1880s and 1890s, poor southerners did a brisk business in selling—and sometimes counterfeiting—relics of the war. Logs containing embedded artillery shells from the battlefield at Chickamauga were among the fakes cleverly produced by a Tennessee farmer. In modern times, X-rays...

    (pp. 218-228)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 229-240)