Great Forgeries

presents Simon LeVay's new novel, The Donation of Constantine
A tale of intrigue, passion, and the struggle for control of medieval Europe

Fake Vermeer by Han van Meegeren

Great Forgeries--An Essay

Forgery—the manufacture of a document, art-work, or other object with the intent of passing it off as someone else’s—has been practiced since time immemorial. Document forgery became a pervasive problem as soon as writing was invented, to judge by the use of seals to authenticate cuneiform tablets in the ancient Near East. The techniques of forgery have changed as human technologies advanced, and the motives for forgery have expanded. Besides fraudulent self-enrichment, these motives include the pursuit of power, victory in war, religious persuasion, the embarrassment of authority, the pursuit of a “grand idea,” and the satisfaction of a perverted creative instinct. A forgery is a lie in concrete form: as with lies, the moral status of forgeries may range from the unquestionably evil to the questionably benevolent.

Many petty forgeries, such as forged checks and banknotes, involve outright deception, but great forgeries—the ones that are remembered across the centuries—require more than that. A great forgery represents a compact between the forger and his victim or victims. The forger wants to deceive, but the victims also want to be deceived. The essence of a great and successful forgery lies not so much in its technical excellence as in a psychological matching of the forgery to the victims’ preconceptions and desires.

My novel, The Donation of Constantine, deals with a particularly infamous forgery from early medieval times, Here I discuss four other notorious forgeries: The Protocols of the Elders of Zian, Piltdown Man, Göring's Vermeer, and the Vinland Map.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

The German version of the 'Protocols' was used by Hitler as evidence of a global Jewish conspiracy.

False accusations against the Jews—such as that Jews murdered non-Jews in order to use their blood in Passover rites—have been made since pre-Christian times. The accusations have been used to justify pogroms, expulsions, seizure of property, and forced conversions. No false accusation, however, had such dire consequences as that contained in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a pamphlet first published in Russia in 1905.

            The Protocols purported to be a record of speeches made at a Zionist congress held in Switzerland in 1897. At the congress, according to the Protocols, participants hatched a plot for world domination. Using their wealth and control of commerce, Jews were to instigate worldwide economic disruption and famine.  This would lead to rioting by the proletariat and a general breakdown of government. The Jews would then seize power by coups d’etat staged simultaneously in all nations. The press, universities, and other means of expression were to be suppressed or tightly regulated, so that only pro-Jewish thought would be permitted. Non-Jewish religions would be extirpated. “Freedom” would be reinterpreted as obedience to the new world order.

For several years the Protocols circulated only in Russia, where they served to incite pogroms. After World War I they were translated and reprinted in Germany, France, Britain, and the United States. They were widely cited as evidence of a malign and worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

Very quickly, the fraudulent nature of the Protocols became apparent. Newspaper articles and books published in Britain and the United States in the early 1920s documented that large sections of the Protocols were derived from a French political satire, titled Dialogues in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, that was written by Maurice Joly in 1864. Joly’s work was directed against Napoleon III and made no mention of the Jews, but it was plagiarized by the anti-Semitic German novelist Hermann Goedsche in his 1868 novel Biarritz. In the novel, the Dialogues were reworked as a fictional account of a Jewish conspiracy. This section of Biarritz was transformed into the Protocols by a Russian secret agent working in Paris around 1898. Five years later it appeared in abbreviated form in Russian newspapers, and was published as a pamphlet by a priest and agent of the secret police, Sergyei Nilus, in 1905.

            The documentation of the fraudulent nature of the Protocols did little to diminish the pamphlet’s effectiveness as a vehicle of race hatred. In America, industrialist and anti-Semite Henry Ford Sr. defended its authenticity, had it published and distributed in large quantities, and used it as the basis of an anti-Semitic book, The International Jew. The Protocols were also publicized by Ford’s newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, as late as 1927.

Much more sinister was the use made of the Protocols by Adolf Hitler, as well as by other Nazis and their sympathizers. Hitler cited the Protocols repeatedly as evidence for a global Jewish conspiracy, especially in Mein Kampf. Hitler even used the fact that non-Nazi publications, such as the Frankfurter Zeitung, dismissed the Protocols as a forgery as evidence for their authentic nature. He successfully promoted the view that the economic disasters afflicting Germany in the 1930s resulted from the very Jewish conspiracy that was presaged in the Protocols. Thus the Protocols helped pave the way for the Holocaust.

In Russia, where they first appeared, the Protocols were judicially declared to be a forgery in 1993. All around the world, however, hate-mongers continue to translate, publish, distribute, and cite the pamphlet as an authentic record of a Jewish conspiracy. It has achieved especial prominence in Arab and other Islamic nations and on anti-Israeli websites. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion seems to be as durable as anti-Semitism itself.

The Piltdown Skull

The Piltdown skull, as reconstructed by Arthur Smith Woodward

Between 1908 and 1912 a country lawyer and amateur fossil-collector by the name of Charles Dawson discovered—or said he discovered—several fragments of cranium and jaw in a gravel pit near Piltdown, a village in England’s southeastern county of Sussex.  These fragments became Eoanthropus dawsoni, or Piltdown Man, a citizen of Ice-Age England and the long-sought “missing link” between modern humans and our ape-like ancestors. Along with these remains, Dawson also found primitive flint and bone tools, and fossils from Ice-Age mammals, and he found more Piltdown-like hominid fossils at another site a few miles away.

            The most intriguing and controversial feature of Piltdown Man (or Woman, for some authorities declared the remains to be those of a female) was this: his cranium resembled that of a modern human, whereas his jaw resembled that of a modern ape. This implied that humans evolved “brain-first”—their increasing intellect was the initial impetus for the development of human-like behaviors, such as spoken language and the cooking of food, and these behaviors in turn caused the body to develop in a human direction.

            Although Dawson found the first fragments (actually, he said he was given them by laborers working in the gravel pit), many other people played roles in the 50-year saga of Piltdown Man. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, then a seminary student but later to become a renowned Jesuit philosopher, joined Dawson in some of the excavations and found some of the fossils. Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of geology at the British Museum of Natural History, authenticated the finds and co-authored with Dawson the scientific paper that described them. Like Teilhard de Chardin, he participated in some of the digs and found some of the fossils. Other geologists and paleontologists took part in the debate over the identity, age, and meaning of the finds.

            A major issue was whether the cranium and jaw really belonged to the same individual. Strikingly, the pro-Piltdown faction claimed to see some ape-like features in the cranium and some human-like features in the jaw, thus ruling out the possibility that the cranium and jaw represented the remains of two modern individuals, a human and an ape respectively. Most of these features were subtle at best, or relied on speculative reconstruction of the fragments. But one feature of the jaw was truly human-like—the upper surfaces of the two molar teeth that were still embedded in the jaw were flattened, as if by side-to-side grinding. This is a feature seen in humans but not in apes, on account of the greater lateral mobility of the human jaw. Comparable motion of the jaws of apes may be prevented by the large, protruding canine teeth. Woodward therefore predicted that the canine teeth of Piltdown Man must have been small. Sure enough, Dawson later found a canine tooth that matched Woodward’s prediction. With that and other finds, the authenticity of Piltdown Man came to be widely accepted in England, though some overseas paleontologists remained skeptical that the cranium and jaw belonged together. No one suggested fraud for nearly 50 years after Dawson’s discovery.

            At the time of the discovery of the Piltdown skull, only a few other fossil hominids were known—Neandertal Man being the most important. Over the following decades, however, numerous other hominids were unearthed and described, and they told a story that contradicted the message of Piltdown Man: brain size seemed to lag behind other features of human evolution, rather than to lead them. Piltdown Man came to be seen as more and more of an anomaly.

            The exposure of the Piltdown skull as a forgery was the work of geologist Kenneth Oakley (of the Natural History Museum) and others. In 1948 Oakley applied a new test to the fossils: a measurement of fluorine, which slowly accumulates in buried bone from the surrounding ground. The fluorine content was surprisingly low, suggesting that the Piltdown remains were not as old as had been imagined. Later studies by Oakley and others showed that the fluorine, carbon, and nitrogen levels differed between the cranium and jaw, indicating that they did not come from the same individual. The human-like wear on the molar teeth was shown to have been be produced by filing, as shown by an unnatural plane of wear and the presence of file marks. The canine tooth that so beautifully matched Woodward’s prediction also turned out to be a filed-down version of a larger tooth. Traces of chemicals used to “pickle” the specimens and make them look like ancient fossils were also detected. In 1953 a series of newspaper accounts made public the fraudulent nature of the fossils. Piltdown Man was dead.

            Since that time a number of books and articles have discussed the question: Who was the forger? There is no incontrovertible piece of evidence to incriminate any specific individual, and numerous persons have been suspected or accused of the crime, including Dawson, Teilhard de Chardin, and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yet in the absence of definitive evidence one way or another, Charles Dawson seems far and away the most likely culprit. He had the means to obtain, alter, plant, and “discover” the fossils, and to lure the unwitting Teilhard de Chardin and Woodward into his trap. His motivation? Probably the desire for fame and acceptance among professional geologists. Though Woodward was probably blameless, he and Dawson engaged in a decade-long folie-à-deux in which one man provided the “wish-list” and the other provided the “goods.” For years after Dawson’s death, Woodward kept on digging in the Piltdown gravel pit, but never found any further trace of Piltdown Man. 

Göring’s Vermeer

'Christ and the Woman Caught in Adultery', by Han van Meegeren, sold to Hermann Göring as a work by Johannes Vermeer.

Reichsmarschall and Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring was an avid collector of Old Master paintings. As World War II came to an end, allied troops uncovered a large collection of paintings hidden in a salt mine in Austria--paintings that Göring and other Nazi leaders had acquired in the course of Germany’s war of conquest. Art experts were commissioned to catalog these paintings and to find their true owners. They were surprised to find among the paintings a hitherto undescribed masterpiece by the celebrated 17-century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. Although Vermeer is known mainly as a painter of luminous bourgeois interiors, this painting depicted a religious scene: Christ with the woman caught in adultery.

Investigators found that Göring had bought the painting in 1943 from dealers in Holland, the original supplier being an artist and part-time dealer, Han van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was arrested in May 1945. His sale of a priceless Dutch masterpiece to Göring constituted collaboration with the enemy, a capital offense. (By coincidence, Göring was captured in the same month.)

After a few weeks in jail van Meegeren came up with a brilliant defense. The “Vermeer,” he said, was no Vermeer at all, but a forgery—painted by himself. Of course, no one believed him. To prove that he was the forger, van Meegeren offered to paint another Vermeer. This he did over a period of two months, while under police guard and in the presence of several witnesses. This feat, combined with information van Meegeren revealed about his forging techniques, convinced everyone that Göring’s Vermeer was indeed a fake. Because Göring had paid for the painting with 200 lesser works of art, many of them by Dutch painters, van Meegeren’s trick in effect regained a portion of the Dutch artistic patrimony from the Nazis.

Van Meegeren had in fact been forging Old Masters for many years, and greatly enriched himself in the process. His most famous work was another religiously-themed Vermeer, Christ at Emmaus. He painted this in 1936; it was authenticated by Holland’s leading expert and purchased by the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam, where in hung for seven years. Besides his ability to mimic the style of Vermeer and other painters, Van Meegeren was a master of technical deceit: he used authentic period canvases, as well as replicas of period brushes and pigments, and he developed many convincing techniques for “aging” his paintings. He also saw to it that the paintings matched the expectations of the particular experts who authenticated them. Some of these experts continued to insist on the paintings’ authenticity long after the 1945 exposé.

Van Meegeren had several apparent motives for engaging in art forgery. There was the money, of course. In addition, however, he was an anti-Modernist who believed in the artistic superiority of the Old Masters; therefore to paint a “Vermeer” was a greater accomplishment that to paint a modern work. He also probably drew satisfaction from deceiving the leading art experts of Holland, and from his own technical inventiveness.

Van Meegeren became a folk hero in Holland after he proved that he had sold Göring a forgery, but his legal troubles were not over. The charge of collaboration with the enemy was dropped, but fraud charges were substituted. In 1947 van Meegeren was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. Before he could begin his sentence, however, he fell ill and died. Twenty-four years later, in a denouement that van Meegeren might have savored, his Christ at Emmaus was exhibited once more at the Boymans Museum, this time as a masterpiece of forgery. 

The Vinland Map

Two Icelandic sagas recount the voyages of Viking explorers, including Leif Erikson, to North America. According to the sagas, one settlement early in the 11th century lasted at least 3 years, but the settlers faced constant attacks from the native inhabitants and eventually retreated to Greenland. In spite of the evidence of the sagas, the Viking’s apparent exploits in the country they called Vinland remained largely unknown to later European culture, until they were popularized again in the 20th century. A considerable debate arose over the reliability of the saga account.

In 1957 a map of the world, bound together with an unquestionably authentic prose tract from the early 15th century called the Tartar Relation, was offered for sale to the British Museum. The map showed a large island of “Vinilanda” at an appropriate location southwest of Greenland. Thus the map seemed to be an independent confirmation of the Icelandic sagas, and it showed that the existence of North America was known to Europeans at least several decades prior to Columbus’s voyage.

The Museum’s experts rejected the Vinland map as a forgery, but they later changed their minds when another document appeared that had originally been bound in between the other two. With this document in place, it could be seen that holes made by bookworms passed right through the three documents, meaning that the Vinland map—or at least the vellum on which it was drawn—had indeed spent centuries bound up with the other two documents. This and a variety of clues in the map itself seemed to speak for authenticity. The map, which in the meantime had been purchased by an American book dealer for $3500, was repurchased by philanthropist Paul Mellon for about $300,000 and given to Yale University.

In 1960 the basic veracity of the saga accounts was proven beyond all doubt: Norwegian archaeologists unearthed the remains of a Viking settlement in Newfoundland. This discovery bolstered the fame and apparent authenticity of the Vinland map: estimates of its value ranged up to $20 million.

In 1970, a respected chemist by the name of Walter McCrone, who had been hired by Yale University to examine the map, announced his findings. In the map’s ink he had detected traces of anatase, a titanium-containing pigment that is usually considered a modern invention. His report was widely accepted as proof that the map was a modern forgery. Presumably, the forger had drawn the map on blank vellum pages that were included in the original bound volume. In 1987, however, a group led by Thomas Cahill of the University of California, Davis, undercut the McCrone study. Using an advanced X-ray technique they confirmed that titanium pigment was present, but only in small amounts that were comparable to those found in authentic medieval documents. Over the ensuing years, pro- and anti-authenticity camps argued over practically every detail of the map, from arcane details of its calligraphy to the particular shapes and locations of various islands depicted on it.

The question of the Vinland map’s authenticity is not yet a matter of universal agreement, but a study by chemists at University College London, published in 2002, seemed to deal it a death blow. Using Raman spectroscopy, a method of non-destructive chemical testing, the researchers found that the ink lines on the map had actually been drawn twice: first a yellow line that contained anatase, followed by a narrow black line that contained carbon. Almost certainly, the lines had been drawn in this way to simulate the natural spreading, fading, and flaking of authentic medieval ink over the centuries since it was supposedly applied.

The identity and motive of the Vinland map’s forger remain a mystery. Money was probably at least part of it, though the forger must been left with a bitter taste in his mouth if he lived to see how the map’s value skyrocketed after its original sale. Whatever the motive, the map was widely accepted as genuine because it bolstered a popular but unproven historical theory, a theory that later was proven correct by other means. 


The truly greatest forgeries are presumably those that have not yet been exposed as such. Thus I do not consider any of the forgeries described above as “the greatest,” but merely “great.” Either way, they are outstanding (though also pernicious) examples of the forger’s art. Not necessarily on account their technical perfection—in fact, most of them were quite crudely executed—but on account of the way they fulfilled a need. In that sense, great forgeries are catalysts: they facilitate a process—the acquisition of secular power by the papacy, the persecution of the Jews, and so on—whose real impetus comes from elsewhere.

So intimate is the relationship between the forger and his victim that, very often, the line between the two becomes blurred. Whether Pope Stephen forged the Donation of Constantine himself, had it forged, or was taken in by someone else, is almost immaterial: it was something he needed. Pepin may himself have doubted the Donation’s authenticity, but it didn’t matter: it served him well. Did Hitler and Ford actually believe in the authenticity of the Protocols? Was Woodward completely blind to Dawson’s shenanigans at Piltdown? Certainly they should have suspected, but a willing suspension of disbelief made them, in a sense, into co-conspirators. Often the real victims of forgeries are not those who are directly taken in by them, but a wider sector of society that is harmed by the injury to the truth that forgery represents.