Fakes and Forgeries: in conversation with Karen Watts

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