Real or Fake: Studies in Authentication

Real or Fake: Studies in Authentication

Real or Fake: Studies in Authentication

Real or Fake: Studies in Authentication


Will the rare autographed baseball your great-uncle gave you put your children through college? Is your grandmother's chest of drawers really a seventeenth-century antique, or merely a reproduction? A leader in forgery detection and forensic investigation, Joe Nickell reveals his secrets to detecting artifacts items in Real or Fake: Studies in Authentication.

Detailing how the pros determine whether an Abraham Lincoln signature is forged or if a photograph of Emily Dickinson is genuine, Nickell provides the essential tools necessary to identify counterfeits. In this general introduction to the principles of authentication, Nickell provides readers with step-by-step explanations of the science used to detect falsified documents, photographs, and other objects. Illustrating methods used on hit shows such as Antiques Roadshow and History Detectives, Nickell recommends that aspiring investigators employ a comprehensive approach to identifying imitations. One should consider the object's provenance (the origin or derivation of an artifact), content (clues in the scene or item depicted), and material composition (what artifacts are made of), as well as the results of scientific analyses, including radiographic, spectroscopic, microscopic, and microchemical tests.

Including fascinating cases drawn from Nickell's illustrious career, Real or Fake combines historical and scientific investigations to reveal reproductions and genuine objects. Nickell explains the warning signs of forgery, such as patching and unnatural pen lifts; chronicles the evolution of writing instruments, inks, and papers; shows readers how to date photographs, papers, and other materials; and traces the development of photographic processes since the mid-nineteenth century. Lavishly illustrated with examples of replicas and authentic objects inspected by Nickell, Real or Fake includes case studies of alleged artifacts including Jack the Ripper's diary, a draft of the Gettysburg Address, notes by Charles Dickens, Jefferson Davis's musket, and debris from the Titanic.


The distant past presents us with countless mysteries that challenge our collective intellect and imagination. Time typically obscures the contexts, erases the links, and removes the ancillary evidence that would allow us to fully comprehend ancient events. Yet the past can also yield fragments—even whole treasures—that serve as clues, pieces of the puzzles that engage us.

The Recovered Past

For years, I have kept a file labeled “The Recovered Past.” Here are some examples of the clippings it contains.

“Found: a Legendary City that History Forgot” (1995) reports on a remarkable discovery by a team of archaeologists led by UCLA’s Giorgio Buccellati. After eight years of excavation, they located Urkesh, the fabled capital of the Hurrians, beneath a modern town in Syria. Many historians had doubted the existence of either the people or the city, due to a paucity of evidence: only brief mention in the Old Testament and other ancient literature and a pair of bronze lions inscribed Urkesh. the archaeologists discovered clay figures and pottery, metal tools, and the signature seals of the ancient city’s king and queen dating from some 4,300 years ago. Buccellati observed that the discovery would give the neglected Hurrians and their rich city their deserved place in history. “The footnote will become a chapter.”

“Unknown Goya Canvas Discovered” (1996) relates how a previously unrecorded painting by Spanish master Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) was found by workers renovating a government building in Madrid. the eight- by six-foot canvas, discovered in an attic storeroom, depicts . . .

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