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Exhibit of forgeries shows off unprecedented collection at Peabody Library

Two pernicious examples of forgeries on display are the "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," including the first German edition with illustration, 1919, left, and an English edition from 1920. A new exhibit, "Fakes, Lies and Forgeries," at the George Peabody Library will be on view through Feb. 1, 2015.
Two pernicious examples of forgeries on display are the "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," including the first German edition with illustration, 1919, left, and an English edition from 1920. A new exhibit, "Fakes, Lies and Forgeries," at the George Peabody Library will be on view through Feb. 1, 2015. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

It's hard not to admire their inventiveness, their refusal to be cowed by the stubborn and unyielding truth, their bravado and their nerve.

The dozens of charlatans, schemers and impostors on display in "Fakes, Lies and Forgeries," an entertaining new exhibit running at the George Peabody Library, went to great lengths to conceal their guile, from concocting a bogus description of Jesus Christ to burying fake marble hieroglyphics that "proved" that Noah's ark beached in Italy.

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In the age of Photoshop, James Frey and various forms of Internet chicanery, never has an exhibit on the fine art of lying been more timely. Now Baltimore is poised to become the epicenter of forgery studies internationally, thanks to a recent acquisition of what arguably is the world's largest collection of historically significant phony documents.

"It takes a lot of intellect, creativity and imagination to pull off a forgery," said Earle Havens, the library's curator of rare books and manuscripts and the exhibit's co-curator. "Forgery appeals to a fundamental aspect of human nature — our predilection to deceive. This is the naughty bits of history."

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About 70 of the most famous literary and historical forgeries are on view, dating from roughly the 12th century to the middle of the 20th. Each of the flim-flam men who created them succeeded, at least for a time. A few changed history.

"Sometimes, the motivation for the forgeries was to do what we're doing now — talking about them 400 years later," Havens said. "If you can't get famous for the genius of your poetry, maybe you can get famous for being one of the best liars in the history of the world."

The exhibit, which runs through Feb. 1, is culled from a 1,700-item collection of literary and historical counterfeits and frauds amassed by a London couple over half a century. The Fakes, Lies and Forgeries," was partly sold and partly donated to the Johns Hopkins University in 2011 by Arthur and Janet Freeman.

Anthony Grafton, a history professor at Princeton University and the author of the book "Forgers and Critics," described the holdings as "the greatest collection of its kind in the world."

"There's nothing like it anywhere else," Grafton said.

"Great institutions like the British Library have lots of forgeries, but they're spread throughout the collection. Here, the books are together and they kind of talk to each other when you're working on them. In the future, anyone who's seriously interested in studying forgery will have to go to Baltimore."

Havens said the world has experienced two great waves of forgeries. The first occurred after the printing press was developed in the 15th century, allowing falsehoods to be widely disseminated for the first time. The second is occurring now, when anyone with an Internet connection has instant access to a worldwide audience.

As he put it: "There's never been a time in the history of the world when it's been more important for students to understand that they can't trust everything they read."

Consider the case of the man who called himself "Bata Kindai Amgoza Ibn LoBagola" — in reality, Baltimore's own Joseph Howard Lee, an impoverished African-American gay man coping with a double whammy of discrimination at the turn of the 20th century.

So he decided to become someone else. In particular, LoBagola decided to become a black Jewish prince and self-proclaimed former savage who hailed from a remote part of Africa. Oh, and did LoBagola mention that he also was descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel?

In 1930, he persuaded a leading American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, to bring out his life story; a copy of that book is in the exhibit.

"He decided to emancipate himself," Havens said. "There's something very American about being rebellious and chafing against restriction."

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urators say that those who forge art and those who forge documents are inspired by different motives. Someone who dashes off a fake Picasso usually is trying to make money. But someone who claims to have discovered Noah's tomb is trying to hijack history.

The exhibit is full of examples of snake-oil salesmen who resorted to desperate measures to make a point. Here are some of the most audacious:

•Heinrich Leonhard Pasch van Krienen, who identified himself as a Dutch count, attempted to prove the existence of Homer by "discovering" his tomb. In 1773, he claimed that he'd stood eyeball to empty eye socket with the remains of the ancient Greek epic poet, whom he found seated before a pen and ink pot. (A copy of the inscription that the count supposedly found on the tomb is on display in the show.)

Unfortunately, the count said, his workmen were clumsy, the heavy marble tombstone was heavy, and the lid fell to earth with a thud, causing Homer's corpse to crumble into dust.

Oops.

•John Hay Allan and Charles Hay Allan were 19th-century brothers who claimed to be the long-lost grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie. They set out to foster patriotism in their homeland by creating an ancient national identity for Scotland about 150 years after their country became part of Great Britain. Sheerly by accident, the brothers also made fashion history.

The Allans pretended to have discovered a mysterious ancient manuscript indicating that an ancient king had bequeathed to each clan an individual tartan, or plaid pattern. The brothers' claim was hogwash, every last word of it — but it's hogwash that became enshrined in tradition. To this day, clans claim their own plaids.

•Sadly, no one knows the name of the enterprising medieval forger who claimed to have uncovered an eyewitness description of Jesus. The anonymous forger posed as a Judean governor named Publius Lentulus who wrote a letter to the Roman senate about a fascinating man named Jesus Christ whom everyone was talking about.

His description of Jesus — as a man who seldom smiled, had gray eyes, a pimple-free complexion and chestnut-colored hair that was smooth to the shoulders, and then curled — persists to this day on numerous crucifixes, religious portraits and commemorative dinner plates depicting Christ's last supper.

•The brazen late-18th-century forger William Henry Ireland attempted to pass off one of his own works, a play about a fifth-century British warlord named "Vortigern," as a newly discovered drama by Shakespeare.

At the time, Shakespeare still had a reputation in some circles as a libertine. Ireland was trying to rescue his good name by forging documents demonstrating that the Bard was a solid Protestant who stood for God, king and country. But Ireland's attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of a gullible public overlooked one teensy detail.

"The play is an absolute piece of garbage," Havens said. "The very first — and last — historic performance of 'Vortigern' was shut down in the fifth act by the audience."

•Few forgers have worked as hard to corroborate their lies as the15th-century Italian friar Joannes Annius of Viterbo.

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Walter Stephens, an Italian professor at Hopkins who co-curated the exhibit, describes him as "the first scientific forger" because he created an elaborate trail of false evidence corroborating his central lie.

First, Annius buried fake inscriptions and marble tablets supposedly marked with Egyptian hieroglyphics in the ground around the Italian city of Viterbo, where he knew they were likely to be dug up.

Then in 1493, Annius claimed to have stumbled upon 11 chronicles by Chaldean, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Jewish scribes. These accounts conveniently confirmed that Annius' home town was the cradle of civilization where Noah's ark had come to ground.

"In the Middle Ages, a lot of places claimed to have been founded by Noah," Stephens said. "There were dozens. By coming up with 'proof' that Noah had founded his empire in Viterbo, Annius was trying to knock out the competition."

If these forgeries strike a modern audience as comical instead of scandalous, it's because the political furors that inspired their machinations have long since been forgotten.

But all were in response to some of the hot-button issues of their time. And the exhibit makes the point that some lies are catastrophic.

On display is a copy of the first German edition of the "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," which claimed to reveal a Jewish conspiracy for world domination and which was used to justify the Holocaust. Though the inflammatory pamphlet was discredited almost immediately, it spread rapidly throughout Europe and America.

"It's an ugly story," Havens said, "a terrible, pernicious lie that caused the deaths of millions of people."

Forgers flourish, he said, when communication between different groups breaks down.

"The forger enters the picture when we stop trying to understand one another," Havens said. "He thrives in confusion. He situates himself in that juncture and rewrites the history of the world, with all sorts of consequences."

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