The Museum of Hoaxes
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Forgers
Han van Meegeren, 1947
In 1947 Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), a Dutch artist and art dealer, was arrested for collaborating with the Nazis. He was charged with selling a painting by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) titled 'Christ and the Adulteress' to Reich Marshal Hermann Goering. This painting was considered a national treasure, making it a crime to sell it to the enemy. Van Meegeren admitted selling the painting to Goering, but he defended himself by revealing that the painting was a forgery which he had painted himself. Surely it wasn't a crime to cheat the Nazis, he argued. More…
William Henry Ireland’s Shakespeare Forgeries, 1794
Bookseller Samuel Ireland was a passionate fan of Shakespeare, so he was overjoyed when his son, William Henry, claimed to have found a previously unknown play written by the Bard. Arrangements were made for the play to be performed. But the actors, suspecting a fraud, made a mockery of it. Soon after, William confessed the play was indeed his own work. However, his heartbroken father refused to believe the confession. More…
Thomas Chatterton and the Rowley Poems, 1767
Young Chatterton wrote poems in the style of the old manuscripts he came across in his uncle's church and eventually produced a group of poems he claimed were the work of a 15th century priest named Thomas Rowley. The poems were praised. Encouraged, Chatterton left for London, hoping to make it as a writer. Four months later, unable to find work, he poisoned himself. The Rowley poems were recognized as forgeries after his death. More…
De Situ Brittaniae, 1747
A young teacher in Denmark claimed to have found an ancient map, titled De Situ Brittaniae, that detailed the layout of roads and settlements in Roman Britain. The discovery caused enormous excitement amongst antiquarians because it revealed numerous Roman landmarks, as well as an entire province, whose existence hadn't been previously known. But the map turned out to be a forgery. More…
Jean Hardouin’s Theory of Universal Forgery, 1693
Jean Hardouin was a respected scholar, the librarian of the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, who argued that virtually all classical texts, and most ancient works of art, coins and inscriptions, had been forged by a group of thirteenth-century monks. His theory was considered highly eccentric. Nevertheless, his theory spoke to the growing awareness among early-modern scholars of the massive amount of forgery practiced during the medieval period. More…
Count d’Armagnac’s Forged Papal Bull, c.1455
Count Jean V d'Armagnac of France (shown above) fell in love with his younger sister and had two sons with her. Then he sought approval from the Pope to marry her. The Pope refused. Undeterred, the Count bribed a papal official to forge a papal bull allowing the marriage. When the Pope learned of this, he excommunicated the Count. Later, King Charles VII's army killed the Count and dragged his body through the streets. More…

The History of Crowland, 1413
When a neighboring abbey claimed a portion of Crowland Abbey's lands as its own, the Crowland monks presented legal authorities with a volume known as the Historia Crowlandensis. It was a series of land charters woven together into a history of the abbey. The document was accepted as legitimate, and the Crowland monks won their case. It wasn't until the 19th Century that historians realized the History was, for the most part, an invention. More…
The Shroud of Turin, 1355
This famous cloth bearing the image of a naked man first came to the attention of the public in 1355. Its supporters claim that it was the funeral shroud of Christ. But skeptics dismiss it as a medieval forgery, arguing that: 1) there was a flourishing trade in such false relics; 2) a medieval forger could definitely have created it, despite claims to the contrary; and 3) the man's body is oddly proportioned (his head is too large), which suggests the image is a painting. More…
The Letter of Prester John, c.1150
At a time when European rulers felt threatened by the growing power of Muslim nations on their borders, a letter suddenly appeared from Prester John, who described himself as a Christian king of vast wealth and power living in the far east. Hopes were raised that Prester John would come to the aid of Europe's Christian nations, and expeditions were sent to search for him. But Prester John was never found. The letter's true author remains unknown. More…
The Donation of Constantine, 756 AD
The Donation of Constantine was a document supposedly written by the Emperor Constantine, granting the Catholic Church ownership of vast lands in the western Roman Empire. For centuries, it was accepted as authentic, until 1440, when the scholar Lorenzo Valla used textual analysis to expose it as a fraud. Valla's analysis represented the growing influence of Renaissance Humanism, and a new willingness in Europe to question long-held beliefs. More…
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.