November 20, 2014 – The Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries have opened “Fakes, Lies, and Forgeries”, a new rare book exhibition at the George Peabody Library. The exhibition features highlights from the Arthur and Janet Freeman Bibliotheca Fictiva Collection, the world’s most comprehensive collection of rare books and manuscripts on the history of forgery in the West.
With more than 1,700 items, the collection touches on some of the greatest theological disputes in Western history, including preposterous claims of universal papal authority, audacious medieval land grabs, and efforts to rewrite the history of the world back to Noah and the Flood. The 70 items on display explore the phenomenon of forgery as a creative, as well as destructive literary form, and illustrate the tricks of the forger’s trade – and some of its most disastrous consequences – through materials that range from biblical and Greco-Roman antiquity up to the early decades of the 20th century.
“The Bibliotheca Fictiva Collection is simply without peer,” said Winston Tabb, Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and Museums. “The Freemans wanted to find a permanent home for the collection in a research library where these amazing volumes would be actively used for research and teaching. We are proud to be that home; our faculty and student researchers have been making excellent use of these materials since the moment they arrived in Baltimore.”
After its acquisition in 2011, the collection formed the centerpiece of an international conference that brought the world’s leading forgery scholars to the Homewood campus in 2012. The result of that meeting will be a collection of essays addressing all aspects of forgery from the falsification of ancient pagan texts to the greater absurdities of Shakespeare forgery from the 18th century onwards.
“Why study literary forgeries? They’re lies. But they’re also literature – not great literature always, but literature with great consequences,” says Walter Stephens, Charles S. Singleton Professor of Italian Studies at Johns Hopkins. “Scholars are lately getting interested in literary forgeries, because the original forgery critics were themselves fiction writers. Dante implied that his famous trip to the Inferno actually happened, but says he fears telling ‘the truth that has the face of a lie.’ That’s a perfect definition of fiction. Fiction is ‘fake forgery’: it exposes truth by pretending to demand we believe an apparent lie. Plato condemned poets as liars, but Edgar Allan Poe knew better. He helped invent the modern detective story, which poses the forgery problem systematically: Where’s the evidence? What’s the motive? Like all literature, forgery demands the exercise of critical thinking.”
Highlights of the exhibition include:
- Editions of Jesus’ posthumous “Letter from Heaven”
- “Eyewitness” accounts of the Fall of Troy
- Annotated books from Shakespeare’s “personal library”
- A first-hand account of the discovery of Homer’s tomb
- Alpine inscriptions recording Noah’s settlement of Vienna after the Flood
- The conspiratorial Protocols of the Elders of Zion
- Baltimore’s own great literary hoax: the “true” story of the early 20th-century Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola, the self-proclaimed “African Savage” descended from the lost tribes of Israel
“It seems that we have been lying to one another at least as early as the invention of handwriting. And, surely, the printing revolution of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries only brought the boundless hubris of history’s great forgers to ever greater heights,” says Earle Havens, William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, who has led the forgery project and co-curated the exhibition. “The Bibliotheca Fictiva is like a second Tower of Babel, fashioned out of hundreds upon hundreds of books. It represents the best efforts of generations of scholars and literary imposters to exalt their own imaginative relationships with the truth. Nor were members of the reading public entirely without fault,” Havens suggests. “Sometimes, it seems, certain things were just too good not to be true, and endured within the popular imagination for centuries, even millennia.”
Fakes, Lies, and Forgeries runs through Sunday, February 1, 2015 at the George Peabody Library, 17 E. Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore, MD 21202. The George Peabody Gallery is open Monday through Friday 9 a.m to 5 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Sundays Noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
To learn more about the institution with its suggestive architecture, visit the official website.
A slideshow of select images from the exhibition can be seen here.