Objects in focus

It’s 1 April – and that means April Fools’ Day. The day’s origins are shrouded in mystery, with many possible explanations offered (which you can handily read on Wikipedia or Snopes if you like).

In the spirit of the day, we’ve selected five fakes, forgeries and things designed to fool that you can find in the Museum’s collection. Although they may not be what they claim to be, these objects are still of great value and interest. We’ve even included a bonus sneak preview of a forthcoming exhibition all about fakes.

Antiques faux show

The Piranesi Vase in the Enlightenment Gallery.

The Piranesi Vase: about 7% Roman. Not really a vase either…

Italian architect and engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) is best known for his architectural views of ancient and modern Rome aimed at the Grand Tour market. By the late 1760s he began to engage in the lucrative restoration and sale of antiquities. In 1769 he acquired a great number of ancient fragments found on the grounds of the villa of the Roman emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117–138) at Tivoli near Rome. He restored these fragments and incorporated them into highly decorative pastiches. He even published a book describing them.

Piranesi’s description of this vase in his book praises it as a fine work dating to the time of the emperor Hadrian – the second century AD. However, he does not mention that only small sections of it are ancient (two of the bull’s heads on the base, sections of the lion’s legs and parts of the relief depicting satyrs picking grapes). The rest of it is entirely of Piranesi’s own making. So the vase is really a grand neoclassical work rather than an antiquity, as Piranesi claimed. You can see it today in Room 1, the Enlightenment Gallery.

Special Offa

Offa imitation dinar

Offa imitation dinar: not quite the shilling (or the dinar).

This unique gold coin of Offa, king of Mercia, is one of the most remarkable English coins of the Middle Ages. It imitates a gold dinar of the caliph al-Mansur, ruler of the Islamic Abbasid dynasty. Although the Arabic inscription is not copied perfectly, it is close enough that it is clear that the original from which it was copied was struck in the Islamic year AH 157 (AD 773–774). It seems that the engraver had no understanding of the Arabic script – the name and title OFFA REX (King Offa) has been inserted upside down in relation to the Arabic inscription.

Why the coin was made is not known for certain. It has been suggested that it was made as a gift for the pope (it was first recorded in Rome), but it is unlikely that any Christian king would have sent the pope a coin with an inscription stating that ‘there is no God but Allah alone’, however badly the Arabic had been copied. It is more likely that it was designed for use in trade – Islamic gold dinars were the most important coinage in the Mediterranean at the time. Offa’s coin looked enough like the original that it would be readily accepted in southern Europe, while at the same time his own name was clearly visible.

A bit fishy


‘Merman’: not actually a merman, more a ‘monkey-fish’…

Did you know there was a merman on display in the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1)? OK, not really a merman – it’s actually part monkey, part fish! It was donated by HRH Prince Arthur of Connaught (1883–1938), grandson of Queen Victoria, and was said to have been ‘caught’ in Japan during the 18th century. It was given to Prince Arthur by an individual named Arisue Seijiro.

‘Mermen’, though more often ‘mermaids’, are well known in ancient, medieval and modern mythology across a number of different cultures. They are represented in art and sculpture, and examples like this one were also presented as curiosities in private houses and popular sideshows in Europe from at least the 17th century. A large number of these seem to have come from East Asia, especially Japan.

The Museum’s ‘merman’ is displayed in the Enlightenment Gallery as an example of the kind of ‘curiosity’ that was found in early collections before the more encyclopaedic and reasoned approach to collecting that evolved through the 1700s. In this context it helps to show how museums changed during the 18th century from cabinets of curiosity to the type of museums we are more familiar with today.

Family jewels

Hippocamp pendant

Hippocamp pendant: not a Renaissance jewel (but still rather lovely).

This pendant was acquired by the Rothschild family from the Conyngham collection and appears to have been in the Debruge Dumenil collection in Paris before 1847, which would make it an early documented fake. It is made of enamelled gold, emeralds and pearls, and is in the form of a hippocamp with a Native American rider. The hippocamp (also hippocampus – from the Greek ἵππος (horse) and κάμπος (monster)) is a mythological creature sometimes known in English as a sea-horse. It is usually depicted with a horse’s front and fish-like hindquarters.

The pendant looks similar to jewels made in the 16th century that were intended to show off massive deep-green emeralds from the Colombian mines in the New World. This example was probably made in Paris in the early 19th century though, as an imitation of this Renaissance splendour. It is set with 13 impressive cabochon and table-cut emeralds. The separately cast Native American rider (riding side-saddle) was perhaps thought appropriate for a jewel set with Colombian emeralds. It’s on display in Room 2a, the Waddesdon Bequest, which houses a surprising number of fakes alongside original medieval and Renaissance treasures, all collected by the Rothschild family in the 19th century.

Funny money

Forged Swedish note

Forged Swedish note: Monopoly money is better than this.

This counterfeit banknote was made in Gothenburg, Sweden, in the 1860s. It was hand drawn and the forger has attempted to replicate a printed Swedish 10 riksdaler note. It must have taken a long time to produce. The appearance and feel of money can be central to an individual’s willingness to accept it. Would you be convinced by this fake? (You can see what a real one looked like here…)

Although it may seem relatively harmless today, forgery was generally considered to be a very serious crime, often with extremely harsh punishments. In medieval times, convicted counterfeiters in Germany were boiled alive in oil, and in Russia they had molten lead poured down their throat. In the 17th century, women involved with forgery could be burnt at the stake and even in the 19th century forgers could be hanged. Although the death penalty is no longer used in the UK, forgery and counterfeiting are still punishable by a prison sentence – so don’t try this at home!

What do you think? What’s your favourite fake in the collection? Are there any fabulous forgeries you love seeing? Let us know on Twitter.