Forgeries and Thefts

There are many ways to value archives. One of the more surprising ones seems counterintuitive, their theft and forgery. Yet the growing scholarship on this topic, and the popular fascination with it, reveals that this is an important means to understanding why archival records are valued. The array of book-length publications on this topic, from broad historical surveys to specific case studies, also often discusses matters of interest to archivists. Studies of literary forgeries and their circumstances and motivations are of obvious relevance since these documents can find their way into legitimate archival collections. Studies of art and other forms of forgeries often lead to the fabrication of documents to develop a false provenance. Theft is an even more direct way of revealing how society tends to value archival and related materials, and archivists and other professionals who provide care for such valuable items need to be knowledgeable about how it occurs in order to enhance their security systems.

What follows is a description, not comprehensive but suggestive (that is, publications I have read), of the growing literature, scholarly and popular, about forgeries and theft. I am not including journal literature or references to movies and television shows, although these are definitely worth exploring as well. I have included a few references to fictional accounts of theft and forgery that are noteworthy for what they suggest about such activities in society.

Compelling Stories and Colorful Personalities

One of the reasons that looting, thefts, and forgeries attract public attention and interest is that they often represent compelling stories. For instance, there are numerous books tracking the Nazi confiscation of art and eventual recovery from Jewish individuals and families, such as Edmund De Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), Catherine Scott Clark and Adrian Levy, Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure (New York: Walker and Co., 2004), and William H. Honan, Treasure Hunt: A New York Times Reporter Tracks the Quedlinburg Hoard (New York: Fromm International Publishing, 1997). The pioneering analysis of the Nazi campaign to loot Europe, in itself an interesting story, is Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (New York: Vintage, 1994). Susan Ronald, Hitler’s Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis, and the Looting of Europe’s Treasures (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015) explores the bizarre story of one man looting on behalf of the Nazis and the subsequent story of his ill-gained collection. The possibilities of good stories also has led to some interesting fictional accounts, such as B. A. Shapiro, The Art Forger (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012).

Many forgers have been colorful personalities and some have been the subject of book length treatments, such as Brian David Boyer, Prince of Thieves: The Memoirs of the World’s Greatest Forger (New York: Dial Press, 1975), a study of a free-hand forger and Frank Wynne, I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Forger (New York: Bloomsbury, 2006). We even have confessions of various kinds of forgers, such as Ken Perenyi, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger (New York: Pegasus, 2012). There are other colorful personalities that we encounter in the world of falsified and stolen cultural heritage. Robert K. Wittman, with John Shiffman, a FBI special agent involved over two decades with tracking down art and other thefts, tells his story in Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures (New York: Crown, 2010). Morris Eksteins, Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012) tracks the career of art dealer Otto Wacker and his sale of forged Van Gogh paintings and subsequent trial in 1932. Anthony M. Amore, The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) provides a set of case studies about art fraud focused on the personalities and the legalities. Perhaps the most candid forger memoir is Lee Israel, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), providing numerous insights into motivation and techniques but not in a way that will elicit any sympathy from archivists. As a reminder that literary forger is nothing new, Joseph Rosenblum’s Prince of Forgers (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1998) is a translation of an 1870 study of the career of Vrain-Denis Lucas.

Forgers and their forgeries often make for engaging stories in their own right. Charles Hamilton, Great Forgers and Famous Fakes: The Manuscript Forgers of America and How They Duped the Experts (New York: Crown, 1980) is a well-illustrated popular account, with some useful information for archivists and other researchers. Another popular and useful account by another well-known autograph dealer is Kenneth W. Rendell, Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters and Documents (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994). That forgery had emerged as a major issue for archivists, librarians, collectors, and dealers can be seen in the proceedings of a 1989 conference on the topic, Pat Bozeman, ed., Forged Documents: Proceedings of the 1989 Houston Conference (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Books, 1990).

As a result, there are a number of journalistic accounts of forgeries suggesting the public interest in this topic. Robert Harris, Selling Hitler (New York: Penguin, 19860 is a detailed account of the forgery of Adolf Hitler’s diaries, revealed to be a poor forgery yet one that initially fooled many experts and led to sensationalistic news coverage. Autograph dealer Charles Hamilton provides another account in his The Hitler Diaries: Fakes That Fooled the World ((Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991). Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, The Mormon Murders: A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit, and Death (New York: New American Library, 1988), follows the ignoramus career of Mark Hofmann, who forged early Mormon imprints and documents, peddling them to the church, willing to purchase sources that were contrary to church history and doctrine. On the art side, Edward Dolnick gives us an interesting account in The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper, 2008). Possibly the most detailed scholarly study of a forger is by Arthur and Janet Ing Freeman, John Payne Collier: Scholarship and Forgery in the Nineteenth Century, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), a scholar who dabbled in forgeries concerning Shakespeare and other English literary figures.

Looting and Theft

We have witnessed wide scale looting in the Middle East in recent decades, focused on the theft of antiquities, a significant portion of which are archival in nature. Lawrence Rothfield, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) considers the theft of materials from this museum in 2003, how it happened, and why it was allowed to occur; an excellent companion of supporting evidence, policies, and perspectives can be found in Lawrence Rothfield, ed., Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection After the Iraq War (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008). Some have responded to the criticisms about museums accepting materials of suspicious origins by defending their research and educational functions, such as James Cuno, Museums Matters: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) and Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). And it is obvious we are racing against time, as aptly portrayed by Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016). These studies reveal the debate about museum collecting and the mission of the encyclopedic museum, the kind of debate that has not occurred in the archives field (and that probably should).

We need to remember that many nations have been engaged in the most aggressive kinds of looting, something presented well by Christopher Hitchens, The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification (New York: Verso, 2008). The sculptures, long housed at the British Museum, have been a high-profile test case for when and how art and archeological objects should be returned to the country of origin. An interesting study is Sean McMeekin, History’s Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), describing how this revolution was financed by the sale of art, antiques, and other sources. The pioneering study on this topic is Jeannette Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), with numerous case studies of theft and repatriation from around the world, with conclusions about patterns and approaches. Archives and related materials have been regularly stolen by the victors going back thousands of years, creating a genre of archives now known as displaced archives. A recent volume considers this topic, with essays on post-decolonialization, European archives, the Middle East, and elsewhere, with discussion of laws and international treaties; James Lowry, ed., Displaced Archives (New York: Routledge, 2017). Astrid M. Eckert, The Struggle for the Files: The Western Allies and the Return of German Archives after the Second World War (Washington, D.C.: Washington Historical Institute and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013) is a detailed study of one complicated case. These kinds of instances remind us that archives and records are often inextricably intertwined in politics, something we are reminded about in Margaret Procter, Michael Cook, and Caroline Williams, eds., Political Pressure and the Archival Record (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2005).

We are not immune to looting in our own country as David Howard chronicles in Lost Rights: The Misfortunes of a Stolen American Relic (Boston: Houghton Harcourt Mifflin, 2010), the story of one of the fourteen original copies of the Bill of Rights stolen from a North Carolina courthouse at the end of the American Civil War. In every direction we look we can discover examples of documents and other objects that have been stolen and that either went into the hands of private collectors or were acquired eventually by archival, special collections, and cultural repositories.

Theft of art objects and archival materials has continued to occur because of the elaborate marketplace that often does not distinguish much between that has been stolen and that that has been acquired legally, as well as the immense prices that paintings and other art objects can command. A sense of the challenges can be seen in Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museum (New York: Public Affairs, 2006). Roger Atwood, Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004) demonstrates that although tomb raiding is very old that the modern world has seen its expansion because of a much more sophisticated market mechanism. Matthew Hart, The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art (New York: Walker, 2004) follows the theft of art from an Irish estate in 1986. Sandy Nairne, Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners (London: Reaktion, 2011) investigates the theft of paintings from the Tate in London in 1994 and other high profile art thefts. Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg, Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists (New York: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2011) considers the past century of thefts of paintings by this grand master and what it reveals about such crime. Phyllis Mauch Messenger, ed., The Ethics of Collecting Cultural Property: Whose Culture? Whose Property? (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989) offers a set of case studies on acquisition violating ethical norms and sensibilities. Such thievery can be more complicated than making money, as we learn in Lisa Moses Leff, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), following the career of Zosa Ztajkowski, who produced scholarship about the history of Jews in France while systematically stealing and selling documents in Europe and elsewhere. One of the best books ever written about a thief follows the career of Gilbert Bland, Jr., who focused on stealing rare maps from archives and special collections, offering a comparison to legitimate collecting; Miles Harvey, The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime (New York: Random House, 2000). Simon Houpt, Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft (New York: Sterling Publishers, 2006) provides a well-illustrated assessment of art theft across the globe.

Art and Literary Forgers

Partly due to the rising prices of fine art, there has been a parallel growth in art forgeries, leading to volumes of case studies of such fraud, such as Philip Mould, The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds, and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures (New York: Viking, 2009); Indeed, attribution and authentication of art works is a complicated process, involving collectors, dealers, and scholars, a process described through one case in John Brewer, The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art, and Money ((New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Some, such as Jonathon Keats, Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), have tried to show the role of forgeries in art and in society, depicting this activity as a sometimes legitimate, and important, means of expression. There are also scholarly assessments about the roles, aspirations, and motivations of forgers, revealing forgery to be a much more complex activity than is often assumed; Anthony Grafton, Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) is a particularly important, seminal, work. Judith Ryan and Alfred Thomas, eds., Cultures of Forgery: Making Nations, Making Selves (New York: Routledge, 2003) provides eleven essays of instances in the past where forgeries were used to bolster identity, memory, and meaning, not always as a means to fooling or tricking anyone. Paul Malszewski, Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders (New York: New Press, 2008) is a popular account of why forgery has experienced a popular upswing in recent years. And forgery is not new. Ingrid D. Rowland, The Scarith of Scornello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) recounts the story of the forgery of ancient Roman and Etruscan documents.

Nearly as interesting as art forgers has been the work by literary forgers, characterized by Nick Groom, The Forger’s Shadow: How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature (London: Picador, 2003).

We cannot forget the fact that early forgeries were not necessarily intended to deceive individuals and authorities, but they were often an effort to support legitimate claims, by adding documentary sources and evidence where none existed, such as argued in Alfred Hiatt, The Making of Medieval Forgeries: False Documents in Fifteenth-Century England (Toronto: The British Library and University of Toronto Press, 2004).


As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, what I have described here is not a comprehensive assessment of the scholarly and popular literature on the topic of forgeries and thefts. My purpose here is to suggest two things. First, given what archivists do, it is important that archivists be aware of these publications and that archival educators incorporate this into their teaching of students preparing to work as archivists. We can argue that this is important given that a major element of what has been considered to be the core knowledge of archival science, namely diplomatics, has to do with the authentification and trustworthiness of documents. Diplomatics re-emerged in an important way in light of the continuing shift to digital recordkeeping and the recognition of the increased fragility of such documents (for both areas see the work of Luciana Duranti). Now, we can add to this the increasing debates about alternative facts and fake news, threatening to undermine ay concept of evidence and truth.

Second, it is important that archivists see the need for new case studies and other research into thefts and forgeries. Much of what we have seen recently plays on the personalities of the individuals involved and the salacious details of particular cases, rather than their implications for archival work and mission. For example, one of the most high profile cases of document theft was that of research files from a tobacco company which ultimately played a major role in legislation about the health implications of smoking; see Stanton A. Glantz, John Slade, Lisa A. Berg, Peter Hanauer, and Deborah E. Barnes, eds., The Cigarette Papers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). Despite the importance of this case, archivists and other records professionals paid little attention to it and its implications. We need to do better.



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