Forgeries were so commonplace that everyone was deceived at some point, no matter how careful and scholarly they might have been ... [Yallop, 2011: 298]

The nineteenth century saw a huge rise in interest in antiquarian, artistic and ethnographic matters, matched by a growing consumer interest in all classes in collecting objects. Naturally this growing market attracted 'reproductions', sometimes marketed as such but more often introduced and sold as the real thing, in other words fakes and forgeries. As Yallop puts it:

'The Victorian collecting bom and the irrepressible fashion for exotic objects from overseas ... was a godsend for the unscrupulous, the profiteering and the criminal. Forgers flourished. [2011: 296]

This manufactory of fakes was fully recognized by the museum world and the general public. The Daily Telegraph in 1885 noted that 'The authorities have been in the habit of buying spurious or counterfeit articles as originals, and ... they have given a price considerably above what might be deemed the market value'. [quoted in Yallop, 2009: 299] The inflationary effects of the establishment, or rapid growth, of a series of large museums during the mid-nineteenth century upon the art market (taken at its widest definition) of course further fed the market for forgeries.

Yallop suggests that the period between 1850 and 1900 that 'the threat from forgeries ... really started to affect the market'. [2011: 296] Pitt-Rivers had relatively few declared reproductions or forgeries in his collections though he did have some, see here for some examples, but he did sometimes knowingly buy probable fakes or forgeries. There are also, inevitably, fakes and forgeries in his two collections which have not yet been identified, and a few that have been which are shown here. Outside of the fields of ethnography and archaeology Pitt-Rivers also made large purchases of art and curiosities from the Far East, both prime areas for forgeries.

Bowden says that:

The General took great care to verify information connected with objects in his collections and was very proud of his ability to detect fakes (for example, Fox 1872a, 458), but he was not altogether proof against clever forgeries. Two objects from Farnham now in Salisbury Museum, a samian dish and mould (Acc. Nos. 3M6B8 and 3M7B3) are certainly not genuine pieces ..' [Bowden, 1991: 9]

though the first statement is perhaps more true for English archaeological items than ethnographic.

Pitt-Rivers (in his only identified statement about forgeries) says:

In all cases when sections are given, I took particular care to test the accuracy of the statements of the workmen as to the exact positions of the implements, and I have no doubt of their correctness in each case. Shortly after I commenced my visits to Acton, some rather ingenious attempts at forgery were foisted upon me, by chipping, varnishing, and, when dry, burying the flints thus prepared in the ground; but upon my pointing out at once to the workmen the precise manner in which each chip had been made, the recent character of the whole, the varnishing, the burying, and the economy of time and labour which might be effected by looking for the real implements when at work in the gravel, instead of wasting so much time over very imperfect imitations, they at once saw that it was impossible to deceive me, and I never afterwards found any attempt made to impose upon me. [Lane Fox, 1872: 458-9 also part quoted in Bowden, 1991: 74]

The problem was that there were no reliable tests for fakes, collectors had to trust their own judgement or that of their peers, they had to get an 'eye' for the right object. Lady Charlotte Schreiber for example, the well-known ceramics collector and expert, became an expert in forgeries in an attempt to identify them. Pitt-Rivers obviously felt that he had this, but he also relied on colleagues like Augustus Wollaston Franks to help out when he was not sure about an artefact. Franks was known for his prowess in detecting fakes, he was famous for his 'good eye' and was described by Walter Budge as having a 'marvellously wide knowledge of every kind of antiquity and possessed an almost uncanny faculty of recognizing forgeries whenever and wherever he saw them'. [Caygill and Cherry, 1997: 77; also Yallop, 2011: 301]

Not all forgeries were prepared by professionals, some were prepared by 'amateur' forgers as an anecdote of the Right Revd. G.F. Browne, vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries, repeated by Caygill and Cherry, illustrates:

Dredging operations were going on at St Paul's wharf, and a large number of curious things were found. Medals of considerable size were among the finds. [Franks] drew an obverse and reverse of a medal, took it to the foreman of the dredging operations, and asked him if they had come across that medal, No, they had not, but of course they might come across one; if they did they would let him know. In three or four weeks' time they had the astonishing luck to come upon the very identical thing. The foreman himself brought it to Franks, so unfeignedly delighted was he to have found the desired medal. The thing was correct in every point, Franks asked the man if he knew the meaning of the inscription under the head of the obverse. No, he did not; he understood it was Latin. 'So it is; S. Fabricotus, the forged Saint.' The man fled. [quoted in Caygill and Cherry, 1997: 77-78]

However, even Franks' judgement was not infallible and some items acquired by him have subsequently turned out to be fakes. Like most of his fellow Antiquarians he was at least alert to the possibility of fakes, explaining to the Society of Antiquaries that 'there is scarcely an object in the range of ancient or medieval art to which the attention of the forger has not been given'. Franks also recognized the deleterious effects the forgers had on the art market, tending 'to depreciate the value of even genuine remains of the past by his dishonest industry.' [both quoted in Yallop, 2011: 303]

Pitt-Rivers must have relied partly on using what he believed to be a network of trustworthy dealers. The same names come up time and time again in the better documented second collection - John Sparks, Bryce Wright, W.D. Webster, the Cutters etc etc. These dealers were also patronised by most of the other major collectors and museums. However, buying from a dealer or even a reputable auction house did not guarentee an avoidance of fakes as even they could be fooled. In some instances the dealers even collaborated with forgers, Yallop suggests that, with regard to the art market:

Under a carefully organized and structured system, the best forgers were contracted to international dealers, supplying them with imitation masterpieces in return for a comfortable salary. These artists were often highly skilled and the objects they created were beautiful in their own right, even if false. Some forgers even became briefly famous for the quality of their work... Several were acquired by the South Kensington Museum, and even when their actual provenance was revealed they were considered to be so fine that they were kept on display.  [2011: 297, other examples of dealer trickery are also given by her at 2011: 303-5]

Whilst the most market for fakes in nineteenth century Britain might have been the booming art market, there also existed a reproduction opportunity. Oriental ceramics were an obvious area (driven by the new Aesthetic taste for such items) but also other ethnographic objects. These were areas about which there was even less expertise in the country which helped forgers. Again according to Yallop:

Victorian scholars struggled to keep pace with the fashion for foreign pottery, tiles, textiles, architectural and archaeological objects, and it became relatively easy to pass off modern copies as originals. [2011: 297]

There are several very well-known 'professional' forgers of archaological objects including Billy and Charlie, two London mudlarks turned forgers [see here for more information about them] and the flint-knappers of Suffolk (whose legitimate trade ended with the decline in flintlock firearms and tinder boxes) like Edward Simpson alias Flint Jack.

The trade in forged stone tools began early. In 1865 John Evans, a colleague and friend of Pitt-Rivers, comments in a letter dated 31 January to his wife :

On our return we visited the Museum where there are sundry Roman mile stones & a few good things miserably arranged and then went to look at M. Meillet’s collection. The heaps of worked flints that he has are surprising even to me and among them are a lot of very drifty looking haches. The worst of him is that he is an awful forger and even manages to imitate the patina on flints both chemically and mechanically. [quoted by Arthur Macgregor in his paper 'After Amiens: John Evans in France after 1859 available here from the Society of Antiquaries]

Pitt-Rivers and his peers even collected fakes and forgeries deliberately. In 1894 John Evans, for example, gave a collection of 'A number of forgeries of stone & bronze implements' to the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford. (see 1894.25.1 and on), including one forged by Billy and Charlie.


This article has omitted discussing two other forms of reproduction, the model and the purpose-made facsimile, both collected or made for Pitt-Rivers. See for example 1884.25.30 a facsimile of an Ancient Egyptian boomerang made for 'experimental purposes' as one of a series of facsimile boomerangs for Pitt-Rivers before 1874 and copied from an original in the British Museum or the various model houses and boats he collected for both collections (because, obviously, the real things would be too large to display).

Bibliography for this article

Fox, A.H. Lane. 1872. ‘On the discovery of Palaeolithic Implements, in connection with Elephas primigenius in the gravels of the Thames Valley at Acton’ Journal of the Geological Society of London 28 [1872] pp. 449-466

Macgregor, Arthur. 2009. 'After Amiens...' available from Society of Antiquaries: Evans Commemoration at

Yallop, Jacqueline. 2011. Magpies, Squirrels & Thieves: How the Victorians collected the world London: Atlantic Books

AP June 2011

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