LiteratEye #4: The Fix Is In: Planted Documents

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Literary Hoaxes

Here’s the fourth installment of LiteratEye, a new series, only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.


LiteratEye #4: The Fix Is In: Planted Documents
By W.J. Elvin III
March 6, 2009

Monk Transcribing ScripturesThe recent fuss about President Obama’s birth certificate started me thinking about the broader topic of “planted” documents. Three modern cases, involving murder, fraud and theft came to mind.

The first case features a brilliant fellow, for a time a highly respected document dealer, who concluded his career as an expert forger by committing two murders.

It is the dream of every “picker” to be rummaging through the bargain bin of a second hand bookstore only to discover a real rarity. That actually happened for Mark Hofmann. The twist was that Hofmann had planted this particular document in the bin in the first place.

Hofmann’s find was an original printing of The Oath of the Freeman. The Oath is legendary as the first document printed in America, but no originals are known to exist. Hofmann solved that by finding one among old papers he purchased at bargain prices at Argosy Book Company in New York City.

It later became clear that Hofmann had facilitated his discovery by planting a masterful forgery. His purpose was to acquire a receipt showing the item “found,” thereby leaving little room for a question of his credibility.

One of the most important elements in the antiquarian marketplace today is “provenance” – the establishment of a chain of ownership as a guarantee against charges of theft or fraud. I wrote extensively on the matter in Fiona magazine because, though it runs contrary to traditional secrecy in the field, provenance is almost a “must” in the sale of rare antiques and antiquities in the present climate.

Hofmann operated in that rarified atmosphere where faded sentences on an aged sheet of paper can fetch astronomical sums. His “original” Oath was up for sale for $1-million and was very nearly purchased by the U.S. Library of Congress. That was when his home-made bombs took two lives and led to his downfall.

Another modern case involves Martin Allen, author of several books that turn World War II history on its head with regard to high level British support for, or other nefarious dealings with, the Nazis. Allen apparently forged more than 25 documents and planted them in the British National Archives. He was then able to “discover” those documents and cite them in his books, in support of fairly outrageous charges. Which is not to say that fairly outrageous charges against government intelligence agencies are necessarily without substance. However, quite a few historians and journalists are outraged that it was decided not to prosecute Allen. That decision, of course, raises serious questions about what might come out in court – perhaps facts that British authorities wish to keep under a tight lid.

Then there is Lee Israel’s tactic, confessed in her disgustingly readable little book, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Her tactic was to steal valuable letters from libraries, forge them, and then plant the forgeries back in the libraries in place of the real thing. The real documents were used as models for further forgeries and subsequently sold to dealers.

Israel says she can’t understand why she is still barred from libraries she pillaged. “I suffered and I paid” she says, referring to a period of house arrest. Humbug. Her crimes were relatively harmless, you might say — but consider the problems she created for researchers who seek a library’s trust in viewing valuable or important documents. House arrest? How about a couple of dabs of tar and a few feathers, and a guest appearance on Oprah thusly attired.

We could follow this trail back through history, visiting the dreadful Dreyfus Affair that brought international disgrace to the government of France, or further still to Mary Queen of Scots, in the days when “getting axed” was more serious than just losing a job.

These cases are intriguing but more intriguing, to me, is that the game is changing dramatically. Today, it’s child’s play to forge or manipulate a document and plant it on the Internet. The recent fuss about President Obama’s birth certificate spotlights the high-tech playing field, where the battle of wits between forgers and document authentication experts continues at a new level.


Articles of interest:

  • Snopes.com on the fuss about President Obama’s birth certificate
  • Wikipedia on Mark Hofmann
  • Rewriting History in Great Britain, Smithsonian Magazine
  • Book reviews of Lee Israel’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? from International Herald Tribune, New York Times, and New York Magazine

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