Innocent Bystander December 2004

Knock It Off

The art of the unreal

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.)

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Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. More

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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