Fraud Week (like Shark Week, but in the archives)

Discovery Channel may have cornered the market on Shark Week, but here at Past is Present we are instituting our own Fraud Week to explore the seamier underside of the archive. Or perhaps we will discover that there is another side to fakes, forgeries, and frauds, in a similar manner to how Shark Week has helped those raised with the fear of Jaws in them to appreciate sharks in new ways — even if they’re not ready to swim with them.

For another example of nineteenth-century fraud, click on the image above to read recent AAS fellow Lara Cohen's piece on the counterfeit gift book economy in the AAS publication, The Book (November 2008), p.3

Fakes can be fascinating historical documents in their own right. (Of course, it helps to have the perspective of at least hundred years between you and the fake. And it really helps if you didn’t shell out a ton of money to purchase what turns out not to be the genuine article!) But honestly assessing forgeries, counterfeits, and pirated copies reminds us of the value of the real thing.

We will spend this week bent over a light box examining bank notes with magnifying glass in hand on the trail of a counterfeiter.  We will pull pirated copies of books off our shelves and take to high seas of early copyright law (or lack thereof).  We will trace the path of a forged George Washington signature from its origination with a cartload of foolscap wastepaper bought at auction and an old-fashioned washstand that together tempted a young book peddler to become an expert forger; follow it through the hands of flattered collectors, a respected London bookseller, and a disappointed buyer; and see it ultimately deposited in its final resting place — the AAS vault.  We will learn what people in the nineteenth-century considered the most pernicious frauds of their time and get advice on how to protect ourselves from “confidence men” in all forms.

As we uncover these frauds in the archives, we hope you will join us in pondering the questions they raise:

  • Why are some people willing to spend thousands of dollars for just the signature of a famous man (or, less often, a famous woman)?  Is there something inherent valuable in paper we know George Washington’s hand touched and his pen bore down on?
  • What exactly is the difference between an authorized edition and a pirated copy of a book?  Between genuine and counterfeit money?  How is it determined that the authority behind these documents is legitimate?
  • What makes something worth faking?
  • How are people convinced to believe counterfeit items are genuine, and to pay good money for them?
  • And perhaps most importantly of all, will you be able to spot the fakes amidst the genuine, or will you too be fooled?

As the week goes on, please comment on our posts and let us know if you enjoy a themed week like this Fraud Week. We already have ideas for a follow-up Crime & Deception Week, and we’re always open to other suggestions.  So let us know what you’d like!

Published by

Elizabeth Watts Pope

Curator of Books, American Antiquarian Society

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