Museum of Printing History Exhibit: Forgers, Frauds and Pirates

There's a new exhibit at the Houston Museum of Printing History that shows how some famous literary frauds were committed, and more important, how they were caught. It's called "Forgers, Frauds and Pirates: Faking the Book", and Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell went to take a look.

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This exhibit is a journey through the dark side of the literary world. It's a collection of infamous examples of published deception of the past four hundred years. There's a copy of the Texas Declaration of Independence; a newspaper account of the death of George Washington; personal diaries and autobiographies of Adolf Hitler, Howard Hughes, even Charles I of England, allegedly written on the eve of his execution in 1649. All are frauds. Austin book dealer Tom Taylor literally wrote the book on this subject, and he says he knew instantly that a purported copy of the Texas Declaration of Independence was fake.

"The red flag pops up, not as a result of any great expertise, really all you need to be able to do is count to ten. There were just too many of them."

Taylor says there are only ten known genuine printed copies of the Texas Declaration in museums and private collections, but there are dozens of fraudulent copies in circulation that are sold as originals. He also found mistakes in the fake copy that can only be described as dumb.

"There's a line of type that runs right through the fold in that copy, and it waves sort of up and down, and that is the result of poorly photographing the original, excuse me, actually it's the result of the folds in the original from which the forgery was made."

Taylor says the frauds and forgeries in the printing museum exhibit and those he writes about in his book Texfake, represent only the tiniest fraction of all the frauds known to have been committed, and the uncountable frauds that are still undetected.

"Ultimately the really good forgeries we never know about because nobody ever finds them. I think that one of the things that's changed is that there's so much nowadays that's worth so much money that it's worth peoples' effort to try and fool some of the people some of the time, and they do."

Unfortunately, collecting rare books and documents has become all the rage, and there's no shortage of forgers eager and willing to create some forgeries and make some money. Taylor says, like the Texas Declaration, many forgeries are just copies of actual documents that were stolen out of archives and museums. He says the Texas State Library in Austin was virtually looted for these reasons back in the 60s.

"And I don't know that anything's been stolen recently. There's been a lot of things surfacing that were stolen in the 1960s, but security is much better, cataloguing is much better, and the main difficulty they have now is that when these things surface, as soon as you say 'well yes that's a genuine document and I know it because it's stolen and it came from the State Library', those documents tend to disappear again because that's not what people want to hear."

Taylor says many literary and document frauds are done by crooks who're just out to make money, but not all of them. He says many famous forgers didn't do it for the money. They were just showing off.

"A lot of the literary forgers were sort of at the pinnacle of their fields, and I think that it was sometimes more of a jest than a way to make money. Some of them didn't need the money. (One of those anything you can do I can do better things?) Yeah, and the ability to create things that not only fooled people, but enhanced the forger's reputation."

Taylor says it's sad but there are a lot of people out there with money to spend on collecting things, and many are so eager they're ripe for the picking by a forger. His advice to collectors is to be very skeptical and suspicious.

"It was George Orwell who said something to the effect that to see what's right in front of your eyes requires an enormous amount of effort. And I think that you have to be willing to look at something without the desire to own it. You have to separate that desire to own something from your realistic appraisal of what's in front of your eyes."

The forgeries and frauds exhibit was created by the printing museum's Todd Samuelson, who says it's a unique display of ingenuity and determination going in both directions.

"The ingenuity of someone who wants to take advantage, as well as that of those who are going to figure out what is going on. Because for each of these stories of piracy and forgery, there is the conclusion that someone took the trouble to figure out what was going on."

Forgers, Frauds and Pirates: Faking the Book" is on exhibit through September at the Houston Museum of Printing History. There's more information in a link on our website KUHF dot org. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.