Fakes, Forgeries & Facsimiles

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Fakes, Forgeries & Facsimiles, part of the Exhibitions at the Folger, opened August 20, 2003 and closed on January 3, 2004. The exhibition was curated by Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts, Erin Blake, Curator of Art, and Rachel Doggett, Curator of Books. Major support for Folger exhibitions comes from The Winton and Carolyn Blount Exhibition Fund.

The fabrication and reproduction of documents has a long and dubious history from antiquity to the present day. The boundary between "genuine" and "false" is murky at best, often hinging on the intention of the creator or duplicator, the historical moment in which an item is being considered, or the level of restoration it has undergone.

This exhibition showcased a wide range of fakes, forgeries, and facsimiles in the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library. It explores the technology and the legitimate and illegitimate uses of these items, and illustrates the rise and fall of two of the most notorious Shakespeare forgers, William Henry Ireland and John Payne Collier.

While technology for authentication has improved, so have the techniques for forgery and other forms of reproduction. Thus, the question of "originality" will continue to intrigue, frustrate, and delight us.

Exhibition material

Can you spot the fake?

Can you detect a faked work of art, a forged document, or a recent facsimile of a sixteenth-century printed page? Even experts able to handle the items can be fooled. Below are two examples from the exhibition.

Although this picture looks like an original drawing at first glance, it is actually an ink-covered photograph of a painting. A dishonest dealer put it in an elaborate frame and sold it as a genuine life-portrait of the actor, David Garrick. Close examination reveals a photographic emulsion under the ink, and a too-perfect resemblance to a finished painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Acquired by the Folger Library in 1938 with volumes from the collection of Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth, the book on the right had previously been owned by another English book collector, Henry Huth. Its binding is signed by J. Mackenzie, who was active in the 1840s. One of the leaves shown here is a facsimile, probably produced from an etched plate at the time that Mackenzie bound the volume. Can you tell which leaf is the original?

items included

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds. David Garrick. Pen and ink wash on paper, ca. 1770.
  • Joannes Boemus. The fardle of facions conteining the aunciente maner, customes, and lawes, of the people enhabiting the two partes of the earth, called Affrike and Asie. London: Jhon Kingstone and Henry Sutton, 1555. STC 3197 copy 2.

Original copies

Facsimile "witchery"

Famous owners?

False imprints

The Headless Horseman

William Henry Ireland

John Payne Collier

Shakespeare's Mulberry Tree