One of the more salient sideshows during the past election campaign was the episode involving Dan Rather, 60 Minutes, and some documents that allegedly offered a glimpse into George W. Bush's career in the Texas Air National Guard. It was a sideshow with side effects. The documents, as you may remember, were said to have been written by Bush's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, and they purported to show that Killian had been pressured by "somebody upstairs" to "sugarcoat" Bush's performance rating. No sooner had they been made public than experts began to question their authenticity—noting, for instance, that the fonts resembled those found on a modern computer, not a Vietnam-era typewriter. CBS News backed away from the documents and acknowledged that its reporting methods had been flawed. In moist partisan circles this controversy will probably persist forever, much as radio waves of Leave It to Beaver venture eternally into space. More immediately, the effect has been to sully the reputation of a major news organization, and to take questions about the President's National Guard service out of circulation.
Forgeries are always an arresting phenomenon. No one pauses anymore for stories about "new clues to origin of universe," but the word "forgery" in a headline remains a stopper. Even when forgeries are badly done, they highlight the capacious self-delusion that must have been necessary for anyone to be fooled. When they are superb, they represent a triumph of the human spirit. Dishonest? Yes. Malicious? Frequently. Effective? More often than not. And forgeries are everywhere. The term "knockoff" can now serve as a prefix to any commodity at all—knockoff perfume, handbags, clothing, green cards, DVDs. In an age of biometrics, forgeries have vast new domains to conquer. It is common to speak of prominent people as "actors" on history's stage, but for-geries, which play a part through artistic deception, are the real actors.
The part they play is sometimes of great consequence—for good or ill. The ancient Gaelic poems of the bard "Ossian," which helped create the modern version of olden Scotland, were the nineteenth-century invention of their "translator," James Macpherson. The claim of the papacy to temporal power over parts of Italy was based on a document known as the Donation of Constantine, which purported to be an imperial land grant from the fourth century a.d. It was in fact an eighth-century forgery, but the papacy did not give in on sovereignty until 1929. The Shabaka Stone, from Egypt, was chiseled around 700 B.C., but in the style and language of many centuries earlier—a fake antique, designed to give its theological insights greater standing. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, with its clumsy passages about a Jewish drive for world domination, was a concoction of the secret police in czarist Russia—a fact not conceded by the Russian government until 1993, a century after the toxins had leached into the anti-Semitic world.
Forgeries like these serve an essentially political purpose. Most forgeries, though, serve an economic one—they're done to make money (sometimes literally). Forgery in the art world has been widespread for centuries. It has been said that Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot painted 2,000 pictures, of which 10,000 are in the United States. The British Museum once mounted an exhibit consisting entirely of forgeries, spanning three millennia. "In Italy," according to Salvatore Casillo, the curator of the University of Salerno's Museum of Fakes, "if you're a good enough counterfeiter, you eventually get your own show." In the 1980s a man named Mark Hofmann hatched an ingenious plot: to create historical documents so embarrassing to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that church elders would simply buy them up—and they did. The scheme eventually spiraled out of control, leading to Hofmann's conviction for what today are called "the Mormon murders." In recent years one of the most lucrative terrains for the forger has been that of sports memorabilia—autographed balls and bats and jerseys, for instance. A company called WeTrak, whose investors include Emmitt Smith, of the Arizona Cardinals, combats the sale of forged items by attaching tiny computer chips to the clothing and equipment athletes actually use. When a touchdown ball is brought to the sidelines, an official implants a chip. A number of companies now offer authentication services for sports memorabilia. (Of course, the forgers are not asleep: there are also fake authentication companies.)