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section heading icon     historic forgery and fraud

This page considers forgery and fraud regarding archival or 'historic' documents, including the 'Hitler Diaries'.

It covers -

subsection heading marker     introduction

The preceding page of this profile noted Anthony Grafton's discussion of the history of forgery and misrepresentation in the pre-modern period, with perpetrators since antiquity concocting charters, contracts, wills, memoirs, letters and other documents to -

  • substantiate political pretensions or financial claims
  • legitimate their positions in territorial or cultural disputes disputes
  • gain personal renown
  • disadvantage enemies and rivals.

Mischief in the archives is not restricted to mediaeval clergy manufacturing royal charters or letters from long-defunct dignitaries such as the Emperor Constantine. Recent years have seen a slew of fake diaries, forged letters and bogus memoirs that are claimed to offer remarkable insights into history or the lives of celebrities such as Howard Hughes and Adolf Hitler.

Those documents, often of a derisory quality, have not stood the test of time and have usually been exposed as fictitious once available to archivists, historians and document forensics specialists without restrictions.

They are an echo of pre-1900 publication of fake letters and memoirs by notables such as Voltaire, Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette, Cardinal Richelieu, Frederick II and Catherine the Great. Consumers continue to believe preposterous claims - whether in descriptions of supposedly authentic items peddled on eBay and similar sites - or in works under the auspices of major publishers and broadcasters.

Works on classical and mediaeval forgery include Grafton's Forgers & Critics: Creativity & Duplicity in Western Scholarship (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 1990), 'Reginald Pecock and Lorenzo Valla on the Donation of Constantine' by Joseph Levine in 20 Studies in the Renaissance (1973) 118-43, 'Forgery and Plagiarism in the Middle Ages' by Giles Constable in 29 Archiv fur Diplomatik (1983) 1-41 and his Culture & Spirituality in the Middle Ages (London: Variorum 1996), 'Forging the Past: Medieval Counterfeit Documents' by Hitomi Tonomura in 40 Monumenta Nipponica (1985) 69-96 and Alfred Hiatt's The Making of Medieval Forgeries (London: British Library 2003).

Annius of Viterbo (1432-1502) obligingly discovered classical inscriptions and manuscripts, published in works such as his Auctores vetustissimi (1498) and Commentaria super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus loquentium (1498). Alas, Annius had written the manuscripts himself, appears to have buried the inscriptions so that could be found and confirm his other claims, and did not speak Etruscan.

His activity is discussed in 'Heritage and Forgery: Annio da Viterbo and the Quest for the Authentic' by Nicholas Temple in II(3) Public Archaeology (2002), 'When Pope Noah Ruled the Etruscans: Annius of Viterbo and his Forged Antiquities' by Walter Stephens in 119(1) MLN (2004) S201-S223 and 'Inventions of Traditions and Traditions of Invention in Renaissance Europe' by Anthony Grafton in The Transmission of Culture in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: Uni of Pennsylvania Press 1990) edited by Grafton & Ann Blair, 8-38.

subsection heading marker     archive crime

Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944) - the 'Hermit of Peking' - manufactured Chinese imperial memoirs such as The Diary of His Excellency Ching-shan, correspondence and even reference works during a career that featured arms dealing, financial swindles and donation of 17,000 items to the Bodleian Library.

Among other exploits - which led biographer Robert Bickers to comment "we know now that not a word he ever said or wrote can be trusted" - Backhouse 'sold' six phantom battleships and 650 million imaginary banknotes to the Chinese government in 1916, having previously assembled an imaginary flotilla of cargo ships, laden with rifles and machine-guns, whose progress from Shanghai to Guangzhou is minutely recorded in the UK Foreign Office archives but in fact never existed.

Hesketh Pearson's The Whispering Gallery: Being Leaves from a Diplomat's Diary (London: Bodley Head 1926) and Richard Pennington's more elegaic Peterley Harvest: The Private Diary of David Peterley (London:Secker & Warburg 1985) edited by Michael Holroyd are two spoof memoirs.

E H Carr, one of the nastier historians of the USSR, endorsed Notes For A Journal (London: Andre Deutsch 1955), the supposed memoirs of Maxim Litvinov. Upton Sinclair blessed Kurt Krueger's lurid Inside Hitler (New York: Avalon Press 1941), supposedly a psychoanalytic account by Hitler's doctor. Scholars now question the authenticity of much of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, a 1789 autobiography by Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797) that is explored in by Vincent Carretta's Equiano the African: Biography of a Self-made Man (Athens: Uni of Georgia Press 2005).

For Backhouse see Hugh Trevor-Roper's Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse (New York: Knopf 1977).

subsection heading marker     media circuses

During the late 1940s and 50s a wave of diaries, letters and other material attributed to figures such as Mussolini and Hitler appeared on the market.

During 1957 for example a mother and daughter produced thirty volumes of what they claimed were Benito Mussolini's diaries, apparently fooling the dictator's son and an expert, who exclaimed that

Thirty volumes of manuscript cannot be the work of a forger, but of a genius.

Other 'Mussolini' diaries surfaced in the 1980s, 1990s and 2007. '"Books for Idiots": False Soviet "Memoirs"' by Paul Blackstock in 25(3) Russian Review (1966) 285-296 and Agents of Deceit: Frauds, Forgeries, and Political Intrigue Among Nations (Chicago: Quadrangle Books 1966) note the Cold War forgery industry, with one perpetrator commenting

I write books for idiots. Do you imagine that anyone in the West would read what you call my apocryphal works if in quoting Kaganovitch, Zhukov, Mikoyan or Bulganin I tried to be faithful to the manner, sense and form of their speeches? ... But when I portray Stalin and Molotov in pyjamas, when I tell the dirtiest possible stories about them - never mind whether they are true or invented - rest assured that not only all intellectuals will read me, but also the most capitalist statesman ... will pick up my book before going to sleep.

In the 1970s author Clifford Irving, fresh from the gonzo-ish Fake: The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time (New York: McGraw-Hill 1969), manufactured memoirs attributed to the reclusive Howard Hughes. Following Hughes' death a forged Hughes Last Will & Testament surfaced, the beginning of what became known as the 'Mormon Will Case' depicted in the film Melvin & Howard.

A decade later it was the turn of Adolf Hitler, with a media circus around authentication, publication and exposure in 1983 of crude fake diaries from Konrad Kujau. Most of the text didn't go beyond such gems as

Meet all the leaders of the Storm troopers in Bavaria, give them medals.

Must not forget tickets for the Olympic games for Eva.

The affair severely tarnished the reputation of Backhouse and Hitler expert Hugh Trevor-Roper ("I'm staking my reputation on it") but boosted sales for Murdoch's News group.

One publisher commented

Hitler sells. Nazis sell. Swastikas sell - and they sell better and better ... I've even thought of putting one on our vegetable cookbook because Hitler was a vegetarian.

Stephen Berry quipped

In this light the major question concerning Kujau must be the same as that for Hitler. Not, how did he manage to get so far? Rather, how in the end could he possibly have failed?

The Sunday Times subsequently offered £75,000 for the 'ripper' diaries discovered in 1992 and promoted in Shirley Harrison's The Diary of Jack the Ripper (New York: Hyperion 1993).

Ironically, on his release from prison Kujau declared that he would write his memoirs but denounced The Originality of Forgery published under his name in 1998 as itself a forgery, declaring "I did not write one line of this book".

In 2006 his great-niece Petra Kujau was prosecuted for forging his signature on at least 500 'fake forgeries'. She had reportedly acquired cheap copies of works such as the Mona Lisa - often for as little as €10 apiece - and after adding his signature sold the "original Kujau fakes" for around €3,500, garnering more than €550,000.

In 2005 it was revealed that forged documents were "recently planted" in the UK Public Record Office, ie Britain's national archive. The forgeries - including supposed letterhead from 1943 that was in fact produced using a laser printer, documents replete with anachronistic terminology and paper from an old book - were used to substantiate claims in Martin Allen's Himmler's Secret War: The Covert Peace Negotiations of Heinrich Himmler (London: Chrysalis 2005), marketed as

a remarkable story with numerous explosive revelations ... startling new facts and perspectives, presents the entire Nazi command in a totally new light.

Critic Ben Fenton in the Financial Times in May 2008 noted Allen's conspiracist claim that "at some time after he saw the documents ... they had been removed and replaced with exact replicas, clumsily forged to cast doubt on his discoveries".

Historians have raised questions about the authenticity of documents cited by Allen in his 2000 Hidden Agenda: How the Duke of Windsor Betrayed the Allies and 2003 The Hitler/Hess Deception. When challenged about a supposed letter from the Duke of Windsor to Hitler, Allen responded that it had been given to his late father by Albert Speer, later being found in the author's attic.

Other 'discoveries' were less dramatic.

In 1976 University of Arizona Press published I Married Wyatt Earp, the supposed memoir by the wife of US gunslinger Wyatt Earp.

In 1993 six missing Haydn sonatas were 'discovered', authenticated, recorded and then exposed as modern, leading Haydn expert H Robbins Landon to comment

It's the most brilliant fraud ... I don't mind being taken in by music this good. It's what Haydn would have written in this key at this time.

Veronica Buckley's Madame de Maintenon: The Secret Wife of Louis XIV (London: Bloomsbury 2008) was withdrawn from sale after revelation that it had relied on the 'secret diaries' of the Sun King. They were supposedly found in 1997 as "a packet of yellowed papers, wrapped in string and sealed with faded red wax" hidden "inside a heavy old chest in a Loire valley manor house" but were in fact a scholarly compilation by François Bluche. His 1998 Le Journal secret de Louis XIV, a thought experiment in imagining what the king's journals might have been like, drew on information from a large number of archival and published sources but did not purport to be a true diary, unlike the concoction from Kujau.

Lawrence Cusack was convicted in 1999 for forging and selling supposed JF Kennedy papers from 1993 onwards, culminating in initial acceptance by journalist Seymour Hersh - for his 1997 The Dark Side of Camelot - that  Kennedy had established a US$600,000 trust fund for Marilyn Monroe's mother.

Journalist Robert Fisk more mundanely discovered that Arabic booksellers were busy selling Saddam Hussein: From Birth to Martyrdom, a biography supposedly by Fisk but apparently authored by Magdi Chukri.

For Irving see Stephen Fay, Lewis Chester & Magnus Linklater's Hoax: The Inside Story of the Howard Hughes-Clifford Irving Affair (London: Deutsch 1972) and Irving's exculpatory What Really Happened: The Untold Story of the Hughes Affair (New York: Grove Press 1972). The 'Mormon Will' Affair is described in James Phelan & Lewis Chester's The Money: The Battle for Howard Hughes's Billions (New York: Random House 1997).

For the 'Hitler Diaries' see in particular Robert Harris' sparkling Selling Hitler (London: Faber 1987), Charles Hamilton's The Hitler Diaries: Fakes That Fooled the World (Lexington: Uni of Kentucky Press 1991) and Philip Knightley's A Hack's Progress (London: Cape 1997).

subsection heading marker     memorabilia

Everyone, it seems, wants to own a little bit of history - whether that is a letter from Jack the Ripper, Ronald Reagan or Cleopatra - and as we noted in the introduction to this profile the contemporary market has been fuelled by online marketplaces such as eBay.

A highlight was Vrain-Denis Lucas's manufacture of around 27,000 letters - snapped up by collectors - from notables such as Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Lazarus (all of whom apparently wrote in French and used modern paper). It included a letter from Saint Jerome regarding a letter from Christ, who indicated that French was the 'mother' language created after the Flood.

A sparkling contemporary account of that industry and credulity is provided in Henri Bordier & Emile Mabille's Prince of Forgers (New Castle: Oak Knoll 1998) and Joseph Rosenblum's Forging Of False Autographs, Or, An Account Of The Affair Vrain Lucas (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press 1998).

The credulity of his collectors echoed the zany Jesuit Melchior Inchofer (1585- 1649), famous for a denunciation of Galileo and Curzio Inghirami's 'Scarith' fraud - and for the demonstration in his Historia sacrae Latinitatis that the angels conversed in Latin - published Epistolae B. Virginis Mariae ad Messanenses veritas vindicata in 1629, defending the authenticity of a letter the Virgin Mary supposedly sent to the inhabitants of Messina upon hearing of their conversion to Christianity by Saint Paul. Ingrid Rowland somewhat romantically comments that Inchofer was sentenced to life imprisonment

in a remote Jesuit house where, like many an inconvenient Jesuit in those troubled times, he was quietly assassinated in 1649.

More recently forgers of 'founding father' memorabilia have included Joseph Cosey (1887-1950?), Robert Spring (1813-1876) and Charles Weisberg (d1945).

The literature on the manufacture of memorabilia and autograph mania is extensive. Highlights include Texfake : An Account of the Theft & Forgery of Early Texas Printed Documents (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press 1997) by Thomas Taylor, Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters & Documents (Tulsa: Uni of Oklahoma Press 1994) by Kenneth Rendell, James Gilreath's The Judgement of Experts: Essays and Documents about the Investigation of the Forging of the Oath of a Freeman (Philadelphia: American Antiquarian Society 1991) and Alan Munby's The Cult of the Autograph Letter in England (London: Athlone Press 1962).

subsection heading marker     revisionists and ripoffs

One aspect of forgery is giving people what they want, whether that is glorious antecedents, a 'usable' national culture or historical 'thrills, spills and spells'.

An example is Etienne Leon de Lamothe-Langon's 1829 Histoire de l'Inquisition en France, a foundation for some of the sillier contemporary claims that 5 million witches (or even 9 million!) were burnt in mediaeval Europe, despite demolition by works such as Norman Cohn's classic Europe's Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (London: Paladin 1975), Lyndal Roper's Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2004) and Richard Kieckhefer's European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular & Learned Culture, 1300-1500 (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1976). Lamothe-Langon's grand guignol documentation has not stood the test of time.

Of the 262 extant documents supposedly by Charlemagne some 100 are forgeries, often from his era.

Giles Contable similarly suggests that "of 164 known charters attributed to Edward the Confessor, 44 (27%) are spurious, 56 (34%) are uncertain, and 64 (39%) are authentic".

He notes that

Many forgeries were made for altruistic, even noble, purposes, or for obscure personal motives ... Like miracles, visions and other works of social imagination, forgeries served to justify profound social and personal needs and reflected the hopes and fears, the praise and criticism of people in the Middle Ages

Chatterton's concentration on writing by dead white males was more wholesome than the swag of supposed contemporary memoirs, diaries and collections of correspondence from figures such as Marie Antoinette and Cardinal Richelieu.

Those forgeries have not attracted significant modern attention but in their time were best sellers, along with forgettable tracts such the 1836 Awful Disclosures autobiography of Maria Monk and Souvenirs sur Marie-Antoinette by 'Comtesse d'Adhémar', the 'memoirs' of royal mistress Wilhelmine Encke-Ritz-Lichtenau, Frederick Lullin de Chateauvieux's 1817 Manuscript Transmitted from St Helena, by An Unknown Channel (a supposed memoir by the former Emperor - specifically denounced in Napoleon's will), 1789 Memoires Justificatifs de la Comtesse de Valois de la Motte, ecrits par elle-meme or Magdalene King-Hall's 1926 The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765, attributed to Cleone Knox.


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