Fakes and Forgeries: in conversation with Karen Watts

72 Fakes & Forgeries

Saturday 7 February, the Royal Armouries will host a highly anticipated seminar day on ‘Fakes & Forgeries’. (#RAFakes)

Karen Watts, Senior Curator of Armour and Art at the Royal Armouries, is conducting a lecture at the event, so I asked her to talk a little about what the day will contain and some background information on why we should study these objects.

Why were there so many forgeries in the nineteenth century?

“The nineteenth century gothic revival created a rediscovering of the Middle Ages with the work of Walter Scott novels, such as Ivanhoe”.

“Suddenly it was the trend and pinnacle of fashion to have medieval objects up on the walls in the home of your castle, mansion or hall, but there weren’t enough originals left to go around. The huge demand for these items led to the creation of many fakes, some which were convincing and some far from it. Greed had a big part to play here, as those with big pockets dug deep for the most ‘exclusive’ items. Most popular seem to be helms due to the desire to create a real human connection to those medieval people on the battlefield or in the tourney”.

“The demand for these items meant that opportunists such as Thomas Grimshaw, a very famous faker who I’ll be discussing in my lecture this Saturday, could take advantage of the fashion and make their fortune!”

Possible drawing of Thomas Grimshaw by Wash, (I.143) © Royal Armouries.

Possible drawing of Thomas Grimshaw by Wash, (I.143) © Royal Armouries.

How many fakes do we have at the Royal Armouries?

“We have approximately 30 fakes within our collection and I will be highlighting a selection of them at the lecture this weekend – including a few which have been hidden in stores away from the public, so it’s a great opportunity to handle some of our objects that you may never have seen before.”

“My personal favourite of our fakes is Mr Smiley, a helm with breathing holes shaped in a large pair of smiling lips! (See image below). Original medieval helms had breathing holes or slots on the lower right hand side of the face and neck to allow the left side remain smooth – to deflect an opponent’s  lance.”

Image A14.53 © Royal Armouries.

Our poster boy, ‘Mr Smiley’. Image A14.53 © Royal Armouries.

What factors indicate something is a fake?

“Weight, decoration and construction are the commonest indicators that an object is not original.”

Have you ever been fooled by a fake?

“Not that I know of!”

Why is it important to study fakes in their own right?

“The history of fakes in the nineteenth century is not only military but a social history. By understanding why fakes were made we can better understand the social climate and romantic fashions of nineteenth century Britain, whilst using knowledge gained to detect new originals. These fakes are now products of their own history with their own stories to tell, and are collectors’ items in their own right!”

To hear more about gothic revival fakes from both Karen Watts and Ian Bottomley – Curator Emeritus (formerly Senior Curator of Oriental Collections, Royal Armouries), come along to the Royal Armouries Fakes & Forgeries seminar day, Saturday 7 February. To book your place, please visit the link below.

http://www.royalarmouries.org/www.royalarmouries.org/events/events-at-leeds/calendar/2015-02-07/seminar-fakes-and-forgeries

 

Fake Spotting – Top Tips

Fakers and forgers have always sought to deceive collectors with cleverly constructed copies, but would you be able to tell the difference? Standard thickness plates and screw threads, and spots of metal and scratches from electric or gas welders and evidence of the use of grinding tools are all obvious signs of modern methods. If the clues are more difficult to spot, scientific analysis through x-rays and microscopes can help to reveal the underlying composition of an object.

Duck's Foot Pistol

Duck's Foot Pistol

Here are our top tips on how to spot a fake:

1. Does it work?

Do visors lift as they are supposed to, do hinges open and close, do gun mechanisms operate? Often, logic and common sense are lost in the fabrication of fakes!

2. Does it use the correct materials?

Bronze is often a good indicator; old bronze is yellower, whilst more modern bronze tends to have a reddish hue.

3. Is it like the real thing?

For example, Samuel Pratt’s fake helmets were often much bigger, heavier and more intractable than the genuine articles. It was often impossible to actually wear them due to their weight and shape, and the vision slits were often in the wrong places.

4. Is the style of decoration of the right period and the right subject matter?

Modern aesthetics often feature in later fabrications, particularly in the decoration, as ideas about what looks good change over time.

5. Does it exhibit the right amount of wear/damage?

For example, with Japanese swords, original scabbards are often discoloured/blackened inside from use over time. Modern reproductions are often convincing on the outside, but remain clean on the inside.

6. Is the corrosion/patination in the right place?

These processes tend to reflect how an object has been used and kept over time, showing evidence of where it has been resting, whether it has been exposed, or kept in something, or damaged. With real objects, corrosion and patination is often localized and can be quite severe in places, with areas rusting away to almost nothing. With fakes, corrosion and patination is often evenly spread and too regular. Also, it is very rarely anything other than superficial; fakers are generally loath to spoil their hard work!

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Fake, Forgery or Replica?

Ever wondered how sneaky forgers managed to dupe and deceive the experts with fake arms and armour? Our Curators Emeritus Ian Bottomley and Peter Smithurst in their Fakes, Forgeries and Replicas Seminar sought to uncover some of the forger’s duplicitous tactics.

Fakes and forgeries often become more prolific when the demand and prices are high; consequently, the gothic revival and the rise of romanticism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provided ideal conditions for the fakes market to thrive as the craze for medieval pieces grew.

Examples of Samuel Pratt's handiwork

Examples of Samuel Pratt's handiwork

One of the most infamous fabricators of fakes of the 19th century was Samuel Pratt of Bond Street. Pratt was originally a vendor of antique furniture, but he colluded with a metalworker called Grimshaw and began to deal in ‘antique’ arms and armour. Some of the armour that he sold was real, but much was fake, being either copies or ‘improved’ items, such as a fifteenth-century sallet which Pratt modified into a basinet in around 1850.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant