Knock It Off

The art of the unreal

By Cullen Murphy

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.)

But the demand side of forgery, involving the potential for profit, does not come close to explaining the outlandish amount of supply. In all likelihood some elemental impulse pushes people toward fakery, much as a biological impulse pushes people to reproduce. The fakes are sometimes laughed off the stage almost at once (as was the case in 1796 with Vortigern and Rowena, a "lost" Shakespeare play written by William Henry Ireland), but in the best cases the deception isn't discovered for years, or at all. Piltdown Man, the seemingly fossilized remains of an ancestral missing link, discovered in England in 1912, was eventually revealed as a hoax, assembled from the skull of an Australian aborigine and the jaw of an orangutan. We still don't know for sure who created Piltdown Man, or why, but we should be grateful for this singular contribution to the annals of human mischief (and I pray that the perpetrator was indeed Teilhard de Chardin).

Every decade or so an act of forgery achieves a level of audacity that renews one's confidence in human aspiration. In the 1980s it was the "Hitler Diaries," vouched for by the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and published in the German magazine Der Stern, which turned out to be the work of a Stuttgart memorabilia dealer. The most audacious forgery of the 1990s was a collection of letters, notes, and other jottings in the hand, it was believed, of President John F. Kennedy, which revealed that JFK had had an affair with Marilyn Monroe and had paid her mother $600,000 in hush money. The documents foundered on a shoal of counter-evidence, such as the use of zip codes before they had been introduced.

Back in the late 1920s this magazine became the victim of an accomplished forger when it published the purported letters of Ann Rutledge and Abraham Lincoln. A romance between the two, who both lived in New Salem, Illinois, in the 1830s, had long been the subject of historical speculation, and now—lo!—here was the proof. The handwritten letters were brought to the magazine by a woman named Wilma Frances Minor, and validated by no less a figure than Lincoln's biographer Carl Sandburg, among others. But soon after publication the truth began to come out, as historians noted anachronisms in the correspondence, such as references to people's leaving for "Kansas" long before it was open to settlement or the name was in use.

Every forger works with a reliable accomplice: his victim. Forgeries depend on credulousness as much as craft. Letters written by Mary Magdalene to Lazarus ought to raise an eyebrow, especially if composed in French—but the buyers of the nineteenth-century forgeries by Vrain-Denis Lucas were not deterred. The Vermeers of the Dutch forger Han van Meegeren, despite their artificial aging, are not really all that good; the essential extra ingredient was the vulpine cupidity of the dupes—among them Hermann Göring. A few years ago an FBI probe of memorabilia fraud turned up a highly improbable object: a baseball signed by Mother Teresa. But who wouldn't have wanted such a thing, to a degree that might overrule judgment?

Indeed, it could well be that some of my own recent acquisitions are too good to be true. There's the White House business card with Karl Rove's name on one side, and the phone number of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth scribbled on the other. There's the crumpled page from a pink While You Were Out pad addressed to "Sec'y Rumsfeld" from "Geo. Tenet" and dated the day Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced: "Ooops! Maybe no WMD after all. Pls. call. (Not urgent.)" And then there's the hastily scrawled note from Attorney General John Ashcroft, written to an aide just after President Bush's second debate with John Kerry: "POTUS says he's against Dred Scott decision. Dbl. ck. all new fed. bench nominees, pronto."

Some of this stuff probably deserves a new round of scrutiny, and I welcome the experts. Even if 60 Minutes isn't interested, Salvatore Casillo will be.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/12/knock-it-off/303611/