Friday, October 19, 2012

A Beautiful Fake

A page from a medieval manuscript, elaborately and colorfully detailed.People frequently ask us how we know everything in our collections is real. We are quite certain about the authenticity of most of the things in our collection, but occasionally we are sure the other way--we know something is a fake, and we are proud to proclaim it.

One such example is our great collection of Thomas Wise forgeries donated by George Singer '50. Wise was a bibliographer, book collector and sometimes forger. He would insert very rare items (some of which never existed) into his bibliographies of English Romantics, then print some up, "discover" them and sell them as extraordinary rarities. Wise's forgeries tend to be fairly plain, in the style of a nineteenth-century English book.

A title page for "Two Letters Concerning 'Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds,'" with handwritten additions.
More spectacularly, we have one piece by "The Spanish Forger." No one knows exactly who he was, but his body of work has been traced and well documented by curators at the Morgan Library and Museum. The Spanish Forger, who was active in the late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century, would take old manuscript leaves lacking illuminations, which could be purchased quite cheaply, then illuminate them in a convincing style. Back on the market, they turned a tidy profit.

Ask for MS 002088 to see our loveliest fake (donated by Mark Lansburgh '49).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Be Ready to Receive Them

A printed broadside.The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was part of a compromise designed to maintain the Union. In the end, it turned out to be one of Congress's most controversial acts and helped to galvanize the abolitionist movement. Part of what made it so abhorrent to abolitionists was that it made it a crime to harbor runaway slaves even in free states. Federal marshals were required arrest runaway slaves and those who aided them.

This undated, unsigned broadside in our collection hammers home the response in many communities. Posted as a warning to fugitive slaves, it informed the community of a slave hunter in the area. The rhetoric pits good against evil: "the slave-hunter is among us." The definite article "the" assigned the whole of the slave hunter's identity to his task--and he is "among us," suggesting an evil infiltration into the community.

But it is the last sentence that is the most chilling: "Be ready to receive them, whenever they come!" Who is "them?" The slave hunters or the fugitive slaves? And how exactly should they be received, with open arms or well armed? It could be read either way, and no doubt, the community members read it as they wished. Some would have seen this as a call to arms, others readied their basements to hide runaway slaves.

Come in and see for yourself by asking for Broadside 000294.