The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1996, Volume 42, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters & Documents.

By Kenneth W. Rendell. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 171 pages. $24.95 (clothbound). Buy this book.

Reviewed by Martha E. McPhail, Special Collections Librarian, San Diego State University.

As original letters and documents created by famous people continue to escalate in monetary value, librarians, archivists, and historians frequently are brought specimens of “original” materials to authenticate or purchase for their collections.

The vast majority of purported one-of-a-kind items quickly can be determined to be facsimiles, a fact the librarian/archivist/historian safely may transmit to the collector. Some items may appear original, but are possibly fraudulent. The librarian/archivist may not always be qualified to authenticate pieces (and may be proscribed legally from doing so). The collector should be referred to reputable appraisers or dealers who specialize in buying and selling literary/historical documents. An expert who possesses a wealth of accumulated knowledge about handwriting technique, language usage, and writing materials, should also be able to place items in their historical contexts. This knowledge allows the expert to discern fakes from genuine items, usually with a glance. More skillful forgeries require further investigation and even scientific testing.

Throughout history forgeries have been attempted, either to affect the historical record or for financial gain. From Ptolemy to Constantine to Shakespeare to the Dreyfus affair, fakes have been presented as genuine. As Don Dickson wrote in an article that appeared in The Library Journal (1935), “[a] review of this subject leads inevitably to the conclusion that neither learned fools nor learned rogues are at all rare and that scholars are not necessarily gentlemen.”

Detection of skillful forgeries created to confound and defraud is the subject of this book by Kenneth Rendell, one of the world’s foremost experts. A dealer since 1959, Rendell is a consultant to Newsweek, Time-Warner, and CBS News, and his testimony as an expert witness has helped decide court cases concerning fraud. His History Comes to Life: Collecting Historical Letters & Documents (University of Oklahoma Press, 1995) is considered by specialists to be the definitive guide.

Using four hundred illustrations, the author recounts famous forgeries of letters attributed to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Burns, among others, noting how even these could have been detected if they had been scientifically analyzed. Equipment used in Rendell’s painstaking investigations includes microscopes, ultraviolet light, infrared radiation, and other technical aids. The author details three recent forgeries, technically dissecting the flaws within the skillfully created fakes. One case studies the fraudulent Hitler diaries published in the German magazine Stern. Another tracks the proficient forger of Mormon documents whose misdeeds culminated in murder. The third case studies the 1992 “discovery” of Jack the Ripper’s diary. Rendell attributes the public’s initial belief that these forgeries were authentic to publishers’ desires for blockbuster sales.

As well as providing guidance in the detection of possibly fake letters and documents, this book reads like a detective story, and it is recommended for librarians, archivists, historians, and collectors.

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