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Famous Hoaxes and Hucksters

What were the most famous hoaxes of all time? Who were the greatest hoaxers, hucksters, frauds and forgers?

Related pages: Famous Beauties, Famous Historical Beauties, Famous Courtesans, Famous Ingénues, Famous Hustlers, Famous Pool Sharks, Famous Rogues, Famous Heretics, Famous Hypocrites, Famous Forgers, Famous Flops, Famous Morons, The Dumbest Things Ever Said, Famous Hoaxes and Hucksters

Top Ten Hoaxes

(#10) Elvis impersonators
(#9) Eldorado (the "City of Gold") and The Fountain of Youth (tie)
(#8) The Holy Grail
(#7) The Perpetual Motion Machine
(#6) The Shroud of Turin (for chrissake, the figure is not anatomically correct; one arm is drawn much longer than the other, in order to cover the "godly" genitals from prying eyes!)
(#5) Black Sox
(#4) Cold Fusion
(#3) The Cardiff Giant
(#2) Piltdown Man
(#1) God and the Bible (was there really a perfect Garden of Eden, a talking snake, a "Fall," a worldwide Flood, etc.)

"Before Elvis, there was nothing."—John Lennon

Elvis Presley

Dishonorable mention: Congress, Dick "the Penguin" Cheney, George W. Bush, Bishop Willard Mitt "Etch-a-Sketch" Romney, Watergate, Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon, The Tasaday Tribe, Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, A-Rod, Steroid Monsters, Artificial Breasts, Enron, Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth "Easy" Lay, Donald Trump, Balloon Boy, Bernard Madoff, Lehman Brothers, Cendant, MF Global, WorldCom, Fannie Mae, HealthSouth, Tyco International, Qwest Communications, Frederic Bourdin, James Frey, Christophe Rocancourt, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, David Hampton, Frank Abagnale, James Hogue, Christian Gerhartsreiter, Jan Hendrik Schön, Shinichi Fujimura, The Great Moon Hoax, The Lamarckian Inheritance, The Sokal Affair, The Lying Stones, William Henry Ireland, Milli Vanilli

Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564): Yes, the immortal Michelangelo whose art graces the Sistine Chapel once resorted to forgery, or at least to deception. In 1496 at the age of twenty, he tried to pass off his marble sculpture Sleeping Eros (aka Sleeping Cupid) as an ancient Roman work in order to command a higher price. On the advice of an art dealer, Michelangelo "aged" then buried the sculpture in the dealer's yard, where it could be "discovered." He then sold it to a dealer, Baldassare del Milanese, who in turn sold it to Cardinal Riario of San Giorgio. When the Cardinal learned that he had been duped, Michelangelo offered to buy the sculpture back from Baldassarre, but his offer was refused: Baldassarre said he would rather destroy it. Ironically, the forged Cupid helped established Michelangelo's reputation. It was later donated by Cesare Borgia to Isabella d'Este. It was then was probably acquired by Charles I of England when the Gonzaga collections were purchased and transported to London in the seventeenth century. Unfortunately the Cupid was most likely destroyed in the 1698 fire at the Palace of Whitehall.

William Henry Ireland (1775-1835) was nineteen when he started forging works of Shakespeare in a misguided attempt to earn the approval of father, Samuel Ireland, an avid antiquarian. By the spring of 1795, an army of London intellectuals—including scholars, peers, a future bishop, James Boswell, even England’s poet laureate—were tromping through Samuel Ireland's house like knights errant in search of the Holy Grail. (Or were they more like Don Quixotes?) They had come to see ancient-looking papers that William Henry claimed to have found in an old trunk. Written in faded ink on yellowed paper, they appeared to be deeds, letters, poems and other documents written and signed by William Shakespeare. There was even a previously unknown play, Vortigern! And it was longer than all the other plays of Shakespeare! What an incredible find! James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s highly-esteemed biographer, actually kissed one of the pages, saying, “I shall now die contented, since I have lived to see the present day.” Even though the forgeries had been hastily produced by a teenager who had been a lackluster student, most of the people who inspected them saw only what they wanted to see: the hand and genius of Shakespeare. Francis Webb, the Secretary of the College of Heralds, declared ecstatically: “It either comes from his pen, or from Heaven!” Sir Frederick Eden, an expert on old seals, pronounced one of the deeds authentic, even identifying the image stamped in the seal directly below "Shakespeare’s" signature (which the forger himself hadn’t even noticed) as a medieval device called a quintain. From such experiences, William Henry learned that all a forger needs to do is suggest a seemingly plausible story; his victims will fill in the details. And some of the victims seemed to be transported into realms of pure rapture. For instance, Francis Webb told a friend: “These papers bear not only the signature of his hand, but also the stamp of his soul, and the traits of his genius.” James Boaden, a critic for The Oracle, was equally smitten, writing: “The conviction produced upon our mind, is such as to make all skepticism ridiculous.” But when the "new" play was performed, it was a flop, and William Henry eventually came clean, although his father still refused to believe him.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616): Was the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon himself a front for some other writer, or writers? Ironically, there seems to be no evidence that the man many people consider to be the greatest poet of all time ever owned a book, wrote a letter, or did more, in terms of penmanship, than sign his name using a mark or a ragged scrawl. This is why people became so excited when William Henry Ireland started producing letters and other documents supposedly written and signed by Shakespeare. The lack of any direct evidence that Shakespeare owned even a single book, or wrote even a single letter in his own hand, coupled with the fact that his will, written shortly before his death, mentions nothing about the rights to any of his poems or plays, is almost unfathomable ... unless he didn't actually write them himself. If this interests you, please click here to learn Who actually wrote the works of Shakespeare?

John Milton (1608-1674) or William Lauder (1680-1771)? Was John Milton, the creator of Paradise Lost, a plagiarist? William Lauder certainly wanted us to think so. In 1747 Lauder published  essays in which he attempted to "prove" that Milton had stolen large parts of his epic poem Paradise Lost from various 17th-century poets. But it turned out that Lauder had forged the "stolen" poems by "reverse engineering" text from Paradise Lost back into fictitious "source documents." For some time, certain experts, including the great Samuel Johnson, supported Lauder, but it eventually became became clear that Lauder, not Milton, was the cheat. In the end, Johnson persuaded his former friend to come clean and confess his crimes.

T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land," written in 1922, contains lines taken from other writers' work, including that of Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare. Eliot's character J. Alfred Prufrock is a rather blatant appropriation of William Shakespeare's character Polonius. Eliot explained his method succinctly: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."

The melody of ex-Beatle George Harrison's song "My Sweet Lord" was found to be so similar to "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons that it was considered to be plagiarized. The case moved through the court system for years before monetary damages were determined.

Rodney Dangerfield's signature line, "Take my wife ... please!" was lifted from another stand-up comedian, Henny Youngman, ... even the pause.

Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770): William Wordsworth described Thomas Chatterton as the "marvellous Boy, / The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride." Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a monody on Chatterton; Robert Southey edited his poems; John Keats dedicated Endymion to him; Percy Bysshe Shelley ranked Chatterton with Sir Philip Sidney as “inheritors of unfulfilled renown.” Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Francis Thompson wrote about him. George Meredith posed for Henry Wallis’s painting of Chatterton's death. Thus, Chatterton became a Romantic myth through the glowing accolades of other Romantic poets. But he is best known today for his “Rowley” poems, which he attributed to a fifteenth-century Bristol priest, Thomas Rowley, who probably didn't exist. Today the consensus opinion is that Thomas Chatterton invented Rowley and wrote all the poems attributed to him. Chatterton committed suicide in a London garret at the age of seventeen, the victim of poverty and despair. He seems to have been the archetypal "starving artist" and if he committed fraud it may have been merely in search of his next meal.

Elvis Impersonators: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Elvis Presley must be the greatest performing artist of all time, because he certainly is the most imitated. I will let Johnny Carson cast the deciding vote in this case: "If life were fair, Elvis would be alive and his impersonators would be dead." (Of course Johnny Carson has had his share of late-night impersonators as well!)

Han van Meegeren (1889-1947): The Dutch forger's masterful work was uncovered after World War II, when a previously unknown Johannes Vermeer painting turned up in the collection of a high-ranking Nazi, Hermann Göring. The painting was traced back to Van Meegeren, who was charged with selling a Dutch national treasure and collaborating with the enemy. Facing the possibility of the death penalty, Van Meegeren confessed to forging the painting. But the work was so good that he had to prove his guilt by forging another painting while in prison!

Tom Keating (1917-1984): The British artist turned to forgery after the art world dismissed his original works. He created more than 2,000 forgeries of works by more than 100 artists. After being caught and serving time, Keating starred in a popular British TV series, in which he taught aspiring painters how to copy famous works. In 1984, when he died, Christie's auctioned off 204 of his works.

John Myatt (1945-): The British artist's forgeries sold at high-end auction houses such as Philips, Sothebys, and Christie's. Myatt collaborated with his dealer, John Drewe, forging work by Matisse, Braque, Chagall, Picasso, Giacometti, Le Corbusier, Monet, and Renoir. The forgeries were inserted into real archives, so that scholars would later "discover" them. After serving his prison sentence, Myatt helped track down other forgers. He now sells "genuine fakes" bearing his own signature, and George Clooney is reportedly interested in turning Myatt's life story into a film. Myatt has continued to paint and has sold paintings for as much as $45,000. He also starred on a TV series called Mastering the Art, in which he shared some of his secrets.
James Macpherson (1736-1796) was a Scottish writer, poet, literary collector and politician, known for his "translations" of the Ossian cycle of poems. Macpherson was born at Ruthven in the parish of Kingussie, Badenoch, Inverness-shire. In 1753, he studied at King's College, Aberdeen. Two years later he attended Marischal College. He then went to Edinburgh for just over a year, but it is unknown whether he studied at the university. He is said to have written over 4,000 lines of verse as a student; some of which was later published, notably in The Highlander (1758), which he is said to have tried to suppress afterwards. After leaving college, he returned to Ruthven to teach. In 1761 he announced the discovery of an epic on the subject of Fingal (related to the Irish mythological character Fionn mac Cumhaill/Finn McCool) written by Ossian (Fionn's son Oisín). In December 1761 he published Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, followed by Temora in 1763, then a collected edition, The Works of Ossian, in 1765. The authenticity of these so-called translations from the works of a 3rd-century bard was immediately challenged by Irish historians, especially Charles O'Conor, who noted technical errors in chronology and in the forming of Gaelic names, and commented on the implausibility of many of MacPherson's claims, none of which MacPherson was able to refute. More forceful denunciations were later made by Dr. Samuel Johnson, who asserted that MacPherson had found fragments of poems and stories, and then woven them into a romance of his own composition. Further challenges and defences were made well into the nineteenth century, but the issue was moot by then. Macpherson never produced the originals that he claimed existed.

William Sykes (18th century): Forgery isn't just about making a convincing copy. During the 18th century, William Sykes convinced the Duke of Devonshire that an anonymous painting of an unidentified saint was actually a portrait by Jan van Eyck, whose works claimed the highest prices at auction of any artist at the time.

Icilio Federico Joni (1866-1946): Joni spent many years as a successful art forger, fooling the art historian Bernard Berenson. When Berenson realized he had purchased fakes, he traveled to Italy to meet Joni, expressing his admiration. It is said that Berenson sold several of Joni's works as originals afterward, while keeping a few of the pieces in his collection as reminders. In 1936, Joni published a memoir titled "Affairs of a Painter," in spite of antique dealers' attempts to bribe him into not to publishing.

Eric Hebborn (1934-1996): A graduate of London's Royal Academy of Art, Hebborn began making forgeries after a famous London art dealer bought a real drawing from him, then sold it for many times more. Hebborn claimed to have produced approximately 1,000 forgeries of drawings by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, Raphael, Anthony van Dyck, Nicolas Poussin, and 18th-century painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, among many others. These were sold by noted auction houses to numerous prestigious collections. He wrote two memoirs of his career, including one that explained his tricks for aspiring forgers. In 1996, he was murdered in Rome.

Shaun Greenhalgh (1961-): Convicted of forgery in November 2008, Greenhalgh and his octogenarian parents Olive and George were involved in the most wide-reaching forgery campaign of all time, to the tune of $11 million. Greenhalgh created works of astounding diversity, from 20th-century British sculpture to an Egyptian statue purportedly from 1350 B.C., fooling Christie's, Sotheby's and The British Museum. The Greenhalghs were caught when a British Museum expert noted that Assyrian sculptural relief tablets, supposedly created in Mesopotamia in 700 B.C., contained misspellings in cuneiform.

Elmyr de Hory (1905-1976): Hungarian painter Elmyr de Hory's elusive past as a con artist was a mystery until his suicide during an art fraud investigation in 1976, when new discoveries were made about his repertoire of forged works from renowned artists such as Modigliani, Degas, Picasso and Matisse. De Hory completed around 1,000 forgeries throughout his career as a forger, some of which are still in circulation today. His pieces have become so appreciated over time that today his fake Modigliani and Monet pieces have sold for $20,000 at San Francisco's Terrain Gallery. Also, forged de Horys have started to appear on the market.

Mark Landis (1955-) Mark Landis is believed to have presented more than 100 forged works of art to museums across 20 U.S. states. To make these donations seem authentic, Landis used aliases and even dressed as a Jesuit priest. He says he was first motivated by a desire to please his mother and honor his father, then became addicted to the VIP treatment he received from museum staff. He never received money or tax benefits. The work above is a copy Landis made of one of Picasso's paintings, based on the image in the catalog to the left, and donated to a museum in Florida.

Tatiana Khan, an L.A. art dealer and gallery owner, was sued after reportedly telling an artist that Picasso's 1902 pastel “La Femme Au Chapeau Bleu” ("The Woman in the Blue Hat") had been stolen, then paying her $1,000 to recreate the work. Khan allegedly told Maria Apelo Cruz that the real Picasso had been stolen from one of Khan's clients, and that the dealer needed a copy to play a trick that would help catch the thief. Soon thereafter, Khan allegedly sold the imitation Picasso for $2 million to an art prospector.

Related pages: Famous Beauties, Famous Historical Beauties, Famous Courtesans, Famous Ingénues, Famous Hustlers, Famous Pool Sharks, Famous Rogues, Famous Heretics, Famous Hypocrites, Famous Forgers and Frauds, Famous Flops, Famous Morons, The Dumbest Things Ever Said, Famous Last Words, Famous Insults

The HyperTexts

The HyperTexts