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The BBC reports that a 60-year-old Korean man has been arrested for running "a private museum stuffed with fakes." He bought cheap artifacts from flea markets and then displayed them as ancient treasures. He claimed one of his fakes was a "Koryo Dynasty celadon." All in all, he managed to earn $443,000 from this scam through ticket sales.

Two things occur to me:

1) So people are assuming that most museums aren't full of fakes? The dirty little secret of the worlds of art and archaeology is that they're awash in fakes. And even when a museum owns the genuine artifact, it might not display the real thing for security reasons.

2) To play devil's advocate, what difference does it make if people see the real thing or a fake? The vast majority of audience members are unable to tell the difference. My theory is that when people visit museums to gawk at artifacts they don't understand, they're actually engaging in a form relic worship. And the power of the relic lies not in its authenticity, but in the belief in its authenticity.
Categories: History, Scams
Posted by Alex on Wed Oct 01, 2008
Comments (16)
The Yale Center for British Art is hosting an exhibition about an obscure 18th-century art hoax (one that I had never heard of before). The exhibition is titled "Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret" -- which makes it sound a bit like a new Harry Potter novel. From Art Knowledge News:

In 1796 Benjamin West, the American-born President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, fell victim to a remarkable fraud. A shadowy figure, Thomas Provis, and his artist daughter, Ann Jemima Provis, persuaded West that they possessed a copy of an old manuscript purporting to contain descriptions of materials and techniques used by the Venetian painters of the High Renaissance, including Titian, to achieve the famously luminous effects of color that had long been thought lost, forgotten, or shrouded in secrecy. West experimented with these materials and techniques and used them to execute a history painting entitled Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1796–97). In truth the manuscript was fake and the story an absurd invention. West had believed it, and, through him, the Provises managed to dupe a number of other key artist-Academicians.

When the fraud was finally exposed, the embarrassment was far worse for West than it was for the other victims. It was largely through his influential position as President of the Royal Academy that the perpetrators gained access to so many of his variously hapless, dim-witted, or simply greedy colleagues. Years later, having been mercilessly held up to ridicule by satirists (in song; in the press; and in a remarkable satirical engraving titled Titianus Redivivus by James Gillray, 1797,Benjamin West - Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes, 1796–97, Oil on canvas - Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Michael D. Eisner. West painted an almost identical version of Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1804), this time according to his own methods and traditional studio practices. This “atonement” painting is today in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Categories: Art, History
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 19, 2008
Comments (1)
Researchers have determined that the Chi-Rho Amulet, found in Shepton Mallet in 1990, is a fake. When it was first discovered in a Roman grave eighteen years ago, it was thought to be the earliest Christian artifact ever found in Britain. Local residents were so excited by the discovery that they named an entertainment center and a street after it. But tests indicate that the silver in the amulet is of nineteenth-century origin.

Suspicion is focusing on protesters who were opposed to local development. Peter Leach of Birmingham University is quoted as saying: "A local group might have had an agenda to place an object there in the hope that an archaeological find would stop the development.” Link: Times Online.

Britain, of course, has quite a history of producing fake medieval artifacts. Back in the nineteenth century two hoaxers, William Smith and Charles Eaton, churned out thousands of fake "medieval" metal objects. Once exposed, the faux artifacts came to be known as "Billies and Charlies." Now they're collector's items in their own right.
Categories: History
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 19, 2008
Comments (1)
Bra-burning came to symbolize the feminist movement, but according to this article at pressofAtlanticCity.com, the original 1968 bra-burning protest, that first associated bra-burning with feminism, never actually happened.

Members of New York Radical Women, upset by the Miss America Pageant's focus on women's physique and seeing an opportunity to publicize their cause, traveled to Atlantic City by bus. They wanted to burn things, as was in vogue then (people mad about other topics - such as the war in Vietnam - burned draft cards and flags), but city officials worried about the safety of the wooden Boardwalk asked the organizers not to burn anything, so they didn't.

Instead, the feminists dumped items like high-heeled shoes, bras, false eyelashes and issues of Ladies' Home Journal into a "Freedom Trash Can." They paraded a lamb outside Convention Hall and held up signs with such things as "Welcome to the Miss America Cattle Auction" written on them. Inside Convention Hall, demonstrators set off stink bombs during the pageant and unfurled a sign reading "WOMEN'S LIBERATION."

Newspapers helped fuel the fire. On Sept. 4, three days before the event, Lindsy Van Gelder of the New York Post wrote an article titled "Bra burners plan protest." In the Sept. 8 issue of the New York Times, protest organizer and former child actor Robin Morgan is quoted as saying the women would hold a "symbolic bra-burning." Open the next day's Atlantic City Sunday Press, and the headline jumps from page four: "Bra-Burners Blitz Boardwalk."

And so the bra-burning myth was born. Though I'm sure protesters must have burned their bras at some later point in time.
Categories: Fashion, History
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 12, 2008
Comments (12)
Two hundred years ago General Ignacio Alvarez, commander of a South American region that would later become Argentina, sent James Madison a pair of duelling pistols forged from the iron of a meteorite. It was a pretty cool gift -- assuming the guns were real. But recent tests performed at the ISIS neutron source in the UK have revealed that the guns were cheap fakes. From BBC News:

The machine was used to compare Monroe's pistols to a fragment of a meteorite from the Campo del Cielo crater in Argentina; the supposed origin of the metals from which they were forged. The results were conclusive. "They were completely different," Dr Godfrey told BBC News. "There were differences in microstructures, there were differences in carbon content, there were differences in chemical composition. We can say for sure they weren't made from meteoritic iron."

Even worse, the silver handles of the pistols turned out to have been made from a cheap brass alloy. Researchers aren't sure whether General Alvarez knew the guns were fake, or if he himself was duped. In fact, researchers aren't even sure if the guns are the original ones given to Madison. It's possible someone at some point in time may have switched the real ones for fakes. (Thanks, Joe)
Categories: History, Military
Posted by Alex on Mon Jun 02, 2008
Comments (2)
Since April 1st is fast approaching, I've been doing a lot of research into the origins of April Fools Day in order to supplement the info I already have on the site. In the course of this research, I came across references to an old English holiday called Shig-Shag Day, celebrated on May 29, that has some similarities to April Fools Day. Shig-Shag Day is also called Shick-Shack Day or (more boringly) Oak Apple Day.

Celebrants would place sprigs of apple oak in their hats or lapels to commemorate the restoration of the monarchy. The oak was said to symbolize the oak tree that Charles II hid in to escape his enemies. But cultural anthropoligists suggest that the custom may have been a relic of ancient pagan tree-worship festivals. And for most people, the day was simply an excuse to get drunk. An 1855 issue of the journal Notes and Queries (Aug. 11, 1855, pg.100) offers this description of Shig-Shag Day celebrations:

After breakfast these men [celebrating Shig-Shag Day] go round to such houses for beer, &c. Should they not receive anything, the following verses should be said:
Shig-shag, penny a rag,
Bang his head in Cromwell's bag,
All up in a bundle --

but fear often prevents them. However, the lads have no fear, and use it freely to any one without an oak-apple or oak-leaf on some part of his person, and visible, -- ill-treating him for his want of loyalty. After noon the loyalty ceases; and then, if any one be charged with having shig-shag, the following verses are said:
Shig-shag's gone past,
You're the biggest fool at last;
When shig-shag comes again,
You'll be the biggest fool then.

And the one who charges the other with the oak-leaf receives the ill-treatment.

There's some controversy about the origin of the term "Shig-Shag." Some people say oak apples were known as "shig shags" or "shick shacks" in some parts of England. But the more interesting theory is that shig-shag was a euphemism for "shit sack," which was a popular term for non-conformists and enemies of the monarchy back in the 17th century.

I don't think anyone celebrates Shig-Shag Day anymore, but I like the idea of a holiday dedicated to getting drunk and worshiping trees.
Categories: History
Posted by Alex on Sat Mar 22, 2008
Comments (6)
The big news in the world of hoaxes, revealed last week (and already posted in the forum), was the revelation that Misha Defonseca's best-selling, non-fiction memoir of growing up in war-torn Europe turns out to be fiction. (Thanks to everyone who forwarded me links to the news.)

Defonseca's memoir, Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years (also titled Surviving with Wolves), describes how when she was a young child her Jewish parents were seized by the Nazis, forcing her to wander Europe alone until she was adopted by a pack of wolves in the Warsaw ghetto.

The reality is that she wasn't actually adopted by wolves. Nor did she wander Europe. She was raised by her grandparents. Nor is she Jewish.

Defonseca offered the well-worn excuse of literary hoaxers: she considers the tale to be true in a metaphorical sense. She says, "This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving." This excuse is used so often that bookstores might soon have to start separating books into a third category: fiction, non-fiction, and non-fiction in a metaphorical sense.

Defonseca's hoax was exposed by Sharon Sergeant, a genealogical researcher, who became suspicious and did some research into Defonseca's past.

This is not the first hoax holocaust memoir. In fact, the holocaust is quite a popular subject for literary hoaxers. Jerzy Kosinski claimed his 1965 work The Painted Bird was a non-fiction memoir of his childhood experiences during the Holocaust. It's now considered to be fiction.

And in 1993 Helen Demidenko won the Vogel Literary Award for her book The Hand That Signed the Paper, which described, so she said, her family's experiences in the Ukraine during the Holocaust. Later she admitted that her family never lived in the Ukraine. They were from Britain. And her real name was Darville, not Demidenko.
Categories: History, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Mon Mar 03, 2008
Comments (19)
Two days ago I noted that I had posted an account of the "September Morn" controversy in the hoaxipedia, and I also said that I had my doubts about the role the publicist Harry Reichenbach played in the controversy. Well, I did some more research, and I've now been able to confirm my doubts. Reichenbach was just spinning a wild yarn.

Some background: The story (according to Reichenbach) is that back in 1913 he was working at a New York City art dealer who was trying to sell 2000 copies of a little-known work of art that showed a young woman bathing in a lake. Reichenbach came up with the idea of staging a phony protest. He phoned up Anthony Comstock, head of New York's anti-vice league, and complained that the painting, which was hanging in the window of the store, was indecent. Comstock stormed down to the store, saw a large group of boys gathered outside the store, gawking at the painting, and almost blew his top. He didn't know the boys had been secretly paid by Reichenbach to stand there. Comstock ordered the picture removed and charged the store owner with indecency. The resulting controversy made the picture famous and caused millions of copies of it to be sold throughout the nation.

It's a great anecdote about how a clever marketer got the better of Comstock, who was a self-righteous moral crusader (and thus a perfect comedic foil for Reichenbach's tale). The story is regularly repeated in newspapers, and for years it's been a staple in books about hoaxes. In fact some author called Alex Boese included it in the book version of The Museum of Hoaxes (Dutton, 2002).

Well, Boese evidently didn't do his homework, because some quick digging through newspapers from 1913 would quickly have revealed a major flaw in Reichenbach's story: The September Morn controversy didn't start in New York. It started in Chicago. Comstock did threaten a New York art dealer who displayed the painting in his window, but only two months after Chicago authorities had prosecuted a Chicago art dealer for doing the same thing. It was the Chicago case that made September Morn famous, not the New York one.

At best Reichenbach can claim that he jumped on the bandwagon after the controversy was well underway. But my guess is that Reichenbach simply invented his role in the controversy out of whole cloth.

You can read my entire description of the controversy in the hoaxipedia.
Categories: Advertising, Art, History
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 07, 2007
Comments (7)
image The tulip craze that hit Holland in the seventeenth century is arguably the most famous financial bubble in all of history. According to the popular account of what happened, prices for tulips began to go through the roof in 1636 as word spread that wealthy people were willing to pay huge sums of money for tulips. Soon the general population joined in the speculative fervor, many people using their life savings in order to buy bulbs, believing they could resell them at windfall profits. At the height of the mania, a single bulb cost as much as a mansion. But eventually reality set in. In 1637 panic selling commenced as people realized they were never going to make a return on their investments, and the price of bulbs crashed, losing over 90% of their value. Many people were financially ruined.

Like I said, that's the oft-told, popular account of what happened. But I've always been suspicious of it. For one thing, the main source many people rely on for their info about the tulipmania is Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which was written in the 19th century, and which doesn't offer any references to back up some of its rather far-fetched tales (such as the claim that one sailor was sentenced to months in jail for mistakenly eating a tulip bulb that he mistook for an onion).

Anne Goldgar debunks many of the legends of the tulip craze in her new book, Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age. For instance, according to the Financial Times review of her book, Goldgar was unable to find a single person who was bankrupted by the tulipmania.

Nor did the speculative craze include large sections of the population: "In lore, Dutch chimney sweeps spent their savings on bulbs, but in fact the buyers were mostly merchants and craftsmen from the province of Holland. These are the smug burghers we know from portraits of the era. Many were Mennonites."

A financial bubble in the tulip market really did occur, followed by a crash. However:
It's a myth that tulipmania devastated the Dutch economy. How could it, when so few people traded tulips? Even those who did survived the crash. Tulips were merely a sideline to their real professions. In any case, Goldgar explains, few buyers actually paid the exorbitant prices they had agreed. The crucial point is that this was a futures market. The flowers spent most of the year underground. Trades were made constantly, but were only paid for in summer when the bulbs were dug up. In the summer after the crash, most buyers simply refused to accept and pay for their bulbs. Some paid the sellers a small recompense, usually less than 5 per cent of the agreed price. These modest payouts don't seem to have ruined anyone. Rather, tulipmania damaged the code of honour that underlay Dutch capitalism. When buyers reneged, trust suffered. Tulipmania was a social crisis, not a financial one, argues Goldgar.
So most buyers simply refused to pay up for the bulbs after the crash. Unfortunately, in today's financial markets people don't have that kind of luxury. Nowadays, with a single click of a mouse, all your money disappears instantly and forever.
Categories: Business/Finance, History
Posted by Alex on Mon May 14, 2007
Comments (13)
Did escaping slaves fleeing from the South in the pre-Civil War era use secret codes woven into quilts to communicate with each other and guide them on their journey? That is the premise of the quilt-code theory, first popularized in a 1998 book written by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. A National Geographic article from 2004 elaborates on the theory:
A plantation seamstress would sew a sampler quilt containing different quilt patterns. Slaves would use the sampler to memorize the code. The seamstress then sewed ten quilts, each composed of one of the code's patterns. The seamstress would hang the quilts in full view one at a time, allowing the slaves to reinforce their memory of the pattern and its associated meaning. When slaves made their escape, they used their memory of the quilts as a mnemonic device to guide them safely along their journey.
Apparently a wrench pattern meant "gather your tools and get physically and mentally prepared to escape the plantation." A bear's paw meant "head north over the Appalachian Mountains." A tumbling blocks pattern meant "pack up and go." A bow tie pattern meant "to dress up or disguise themselves."

However, many historians dispute the existence of such a code, arguing that there's little evidence it ever existed or was used. The principal evidence for it comes from oral tradition, such as the testimony of a woman named Ozella McDaniel, who was a descendant of slaves, and told the story to Tobin and Dodard. She claimed the secret had been passed down from one generation to the next, without ever being written down.

A recent article in the Omaha World-Herald summarizes some of the arguments of quilt-code skeptics:
Quilt historians believe that the quilt connection to the Underground Railroad is a myth or folktale, and may even be a hoax concocted by a woman who sold quilts.
"So many people are buying into it because it's such a great story," said Sheila Green, chairwoman of education for the Nebraska State Quilt Guild. "It is just a story."
Green said quilt historians note that some of the quilt patterns said to have been part of the "code" to guide fleeing slaves did not even exist in the 1800s. For example, the pattern known as the "bow tie" - which some say told escaping slaves to dress up or disguise themselves - was not found in print until 1956. Kathy Moore, a quilt historian who lives in Lincoln, said it is possible that someone quilted that design before 1956 but that it did not have a name.
"It's the names that tell the story," she said. "This story is a myth that borders on a hoax."
Moore also said one must consider that fugitive slaves traveled at night and wouldn't have gotten close enough to a house to see the pattern of a quilt hanging on a clothesline or porch rail.
I don't know enough about the issue to form an opinion about whether or not the quilt code was real. I've never even read Tobin and Dodard's book. However, it does remind me of a few other secret-code theories covered on the MoH, such as the hanky code (which apparently is real), and powerline codes (which probably aren't real).
Categories: History
Posted by Alex on Sat May 12, 2007
Comments (15)
The Wisconsin Historical Society has just posted a large collection of tall-tale postcards online, along with some accompanying history. Definitely worth checking out. Highlights include galleries devoted to two early masters of the tall-tale genre, William H. Martin and Alfred Stanley Johnson. It's also possible to buy reproductions of these prints through their website.

The only thing I find regrettable is that their site is full of all kinds of warnings threatening people not to use any image from the site without first obtaining written permission from them. If an image is public domain (as many of these tall-tale postcards are, since they were published before 1923), then can the Historical Society actually set conditions on their usage? It seems to me that would be like a publisher selling Shakespeare's works along with a warning that their permission must be obtained before any play is actually performed.
Categories: Folklore/Tall Tales, History
Posted by Alex on Thu Dec 21, 2006
Comments (13)
The Des Moines Register reports that a new musical about the Cardiff Giant hoax has debuted in Iowa:
It's an unlikely recipe for a musical: an odd 19th-century hoax set to the music of Iowa composer Karl King. But a group of creative minds in Fort Dodge, led by Deann Haden-Luke, managed to pull it together with a financial boost from the Iowa Arts Council. "Cardiff," presented by Comedia Musica Players, premieres tonight in Fort Dodge and plays through Sunday.
I usually think of the Cardiff Giant as a New York hoax, but it's true that the stone for the giant did come from Iowa. Anyway, I'll need to add this to my list of odd musicals. The Cardiff Giant has already been the subject of a fictional novel, American Goliath by Harvey Jacobs, which was surprisingly raunchy (and funny too). Doesn't look like the play will be raunchy like the book, though you never know. Audiences could be in for a surprise.
Categories: Entertainment, History
Posted by Alex on Fri Nov 17, 2006
Comments (6)
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