How Phony Things Teach Us About Real Stuff
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An intriguing exploration of “frauds, forgeries, and fakes.”

Because of recent “worries about ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts,’ the question of authenticity has taken on particular urgency,” writes historian Pyne (Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils, 2016, etc.). She offers examples “where a ‘real’ object ends and where a ‘fake’ (or less than real) object begins,” drawing from a variety of disciplines including art, literature, mineralogy, natural history, archaeology, and wildlife documentaries. In the late 19th century, the “Spanish Forger” plied his—or her; the forger’s identity was never known—trade in the art world, becoming “one of the most skillful, and successful, and prolific forgers of all time.” Many museums had his Renaissance replicas—some 350 of them—until the ruse was uncovered years later. In the late 18th century, William Henry Ireland began forging all things Shakespeare—autographs, wills, even whole plays—using period ink and paper. The collectable fakes eventually became “more genuine for having been fake in the first place.” In the chapter titled “The Truth About the Lying Stones,” Pyne recounts how an expert was duped by three young men’s forged fossils. The scholar went to court in 1726 in hopes of “saving his honour.” Man’s creation of diamonds began in the late 18th century and reached its zenith in the 1950s when De Beers began making and selling synthetic diamonds. In the mid-20th century, companies actively created new, fake flavors as they drove “consumers’ expectations about what food ought to taste like.” Pyne ponders the “delicate tango of blending art and artifice into the world of storytelling in wildlife films.” Particularly fascinating is France’s costly replica of the famous Palaeolithic Chauvet Cave; the real one is closed to the public. Pyne also scrutinizes blue whale skeletons, a Mayan Codex, and artist Bansky’s paleo-inspired artifact, with “fake provenance and falsified index number,” surreptitiously installed in the British Museum, which went undiscovered for days.

Genuine history smartly explored.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-4729-6182-2
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2019