10 Biggest Forgeries In History

Can you spot a fake? Probably not. But these forgeries fooled the top people in their field, so you shouldn’t feel too bad about it. Check out Treasure Detectives - Tuesdays at 9pm on CNBC - and discover more ridiculous forgeries.

1. Michelangelo Buonarotti

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This guy essentially invented the antiquing technique. You know, when people whip wooden armoires with a length of chain to make them look old and rustic? His name is Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), and he started his sculpting career by mutilating and burying his own statues to convince buyers that the sculptures were ancient Roman artifacts. People were willing to pay top dollar for old Roman art, so he made a killing.

2. The Bixby Letter

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You might remember this document as the inspiration for Saving Private Ryan - it’s a letter addressed to Lydia Bixby, a Bostonian widow, from the then-president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. It was said that all five of Bixby’s sons were killed in action during the Civil War, and that Lincoln had hand-penned this note directly to the grieving mother, expressing his condolences. Welp - apparently that’s a bunch of nonsense. The jury’s still out on this one, but it seems as though the thing isn’t real - for a few reasons - the most prominent being that according to the records, two of the sons died in battle, one was honorably discharged, and two straight up left the Army. Oh, and also Lydia Bixby was a known Confederate sympathizer. Soooo…

3. The Donation of Constantine

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This is an old fake-out, here. Allegedly, in the fourth century, it was sent by Constantine the Great (the Roman emperor at the time) to Pope Sylvester IV. The letter is basically Constantine saying “I’m Christian now, so go nuts with power, Pope. Go absolutely crazy.” It’s true that Constantine converted to Christianity, but he certainly didn’t write a letter to the Pope giving him all sorts of power over the inhabitants of western Europe. As you might imagine, this seriously effed up future debates of church intervening with state. Popes kept using it as justification of their political domination, but they may as well have been citing Harry Potter. The document was outed as a fake in the 15th century.

4. The Turk

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This thing was essentially a robot that could play chess, and was marketed as such. Nowadays, the chess app comes standard on all Mac laptops - so this doesn’t seem particularly impressive - but back in 1770, it was a big deal. Constructed to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, The Turk was soon playing chess against a whole bunch of people you might recognize - like Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. Turns out it was just a concealed man sitting in the base of the mechanism. Either we’ve come a long way, or there are tiny elves in our laptops. You decide.

5. JFK Document Hoax

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Our second sexiest president (lookin’ at you, Obama) and a sex symbol of the fifties, doin’ it on the DL. It’s a TMZ wet dream. In 1997, Lawrence Cusack came forward with some convincing evidence that JFK and Marilyn Monroe had been doing the deed on the regular while he was in office. ABC was even going to make a movie based on the scandal. But after some inconsistencies in the letters surfaced - mostly the use of zip codes before zip codes were even invented - ABC publicly confronted Cusack, and now he’s facing ten years in prison.

6. Shakespeare’s Lost Play

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A man named William Henry Ireland got a little greedy with his success in forgery. After successfully selling some Shakespeare scripts that were claimed to have been written by the bard himself, he decided to take it one step further by “discovering” an unknown Shakespearean drama called Vortigern. Predictably, a theatre producer jumped on board and began putting the play into production. It took about a minute for him to realize that this wasn’t Shakespeare’s voice. It was Ireland’s. He put it on anyway - on April 2nd, 1796 - but as an April Fool’s Joke.

7. The Lincoln Love Letters

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Abraham Lincoln had a real-life affair with a woman named Ann Rutledge - sure. But in this forged correspondence, “Ann” writes - “if you git me the dictshinery…I no I can do both speaking and riting better…my hart runs over with hapynes when I think yore name…” The dead giveaway with this one is that “Lincoln’s” responses were only slightly more literate, and the letters were always signed “yours affectionately, Abe.” This is for real - it is a known fact that Lincoln hates that nickname.

8. The Piltdown Man

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Named for the place it was discovered (Piltdown, East Sussex, England), Piltdown man was believed to be the fossilized remains of an unknown early human. The findings, a skull and jawbone, completely stumped scientists at the time. It was “found” in 1912, and in 1953 it was discovered that someone had deliberately combined the skull of a human with the jawbone of an orangutan. The crazy part about this is that it took 41 years to figure out that someone had just slapped two different face parts together. Science!

9. Banksy’s Installation

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Not so much forgery as it is installation art - the well-known street artist Banksy went around to the world’s best museums (Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, American Museum of Natural History, Brooklyn Museum, The Louvre) and mounted his own art onto empty walls alongside the real stuff. For some museums, it took only hours to notice the change - for others, months. When asked what his motivations were, Banksy responded, “I thought some of the paintings were quite good. That’s why I thought, you know, put them in a gallery. Otherwise, they would just sit at home and no one else would see them.” Excellent point.

10. Justin Bieber Reimagined

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Turns out that if you slow down Justin Bieber’s hit “U Smile” by 800x, the result is an extremely soothing, ambient jam. When Gawker pointed this out, a lot of people tried correcting them, saying that it was actually an original tune by a group called Photon Wave Orchestra. But sure enough, after speeding up PWO’s track, the dulcet tones of the Biebs were clearly heard. No one was mad. They were too busy searching WebMD for a Bieber Fever antidote.

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