In the middle of the 19th century, a huge number of supposedly medieval lead artifacts of unknown origin suddenly appeared on the London antique market. Naturally, questions were raised about the authenticity of these items. Antiquaries unanimously asserted that the artifacts were genuine. In the end, the terrible truth was revealed - these are skillfully made forgeries. But the most interesting thing in all this was that these "antiquities" were made by two people who absolutely did not understand either history or archeology. How did illiterate criminals manage to deceive experienced and competent antique dealers?
In those days, there were a lot of beggars in Great Britain. In turn, even this lower class was divided into, a kind, estates. The homeless who walked the banks of the Thames every day, in search of the garbage thrown ashore, in order to find there at least something to profit from, were called "dirty larks." Even the scavengers despised this category of people. That is, it was the very bottom of London.
It was two illiterate representatives of this bottom who were able to deceive the entire aristocratic elite of Great Britain at that time. Two petty thieves - Hive Smith (Billy) and Charles Eaton (Charlie). One fine day, they realized that their fishing would never be able to, let alone bring a lot of money, but simply feed them. Then it dawned on Billy and Charlie: you can make antiques yourself! These two became the authors of the forgeries that are today called the "Shadwell forgeries".
In 1857, Smith and Eaton launched the production of various "medieval" items. In Paris, they cast the molds out of plaster. Then, in these forms of lead alloy, they skillfully made medallions, amulets, coins, which were so willingly bought by the rich. All the English nobility were delighted with these gizmos with meaningless inscriptions and random numbering.
Due to the primitivism of their amateurish technique, quite authentic looking antiquities were obtained. The produce was clumsy and crude. The edges were uneven, and there were pits on the surface. The figures of the knights were rather poorly drawn, their faces were somehow childish, and instead of a helmet they had strange spikes on their heads. The inscriptions were just meaningless scribbles, since neither Billy nor Charlie simply could not write. To make the items look antique, the criminals treated them with acid and then covered them with a layer of river silt. The Smith and Eaton dates are carved between the 11th and 16th centuries. Moreover, the dates were made in Arabic numerals, and they were not used in Europe until the 15th century.
Despite all the gross errors, simply glaring inconsistencies, historians have confirmed the authenticity of these forgeries. None of them even raised an eyebrow! Charles Roach Smith, a leading antiquarian and co-founder of the British Archaeological Association, even stated: “The very rudeness with which these items are crafted is proof of their authenticity. Any forger would do it more accurately and better!"
So the ineptitude of the London swindlers came out on their side. Roach Smith also came up with a very convenient backstory for these forgeries.He said that these items are nothing more than religious tokens during the reign of Mary I in England.
According to the expert, they were made in order to replace the objects of religious worship that were destroyed during the English Reformation. In less than five years, former thieves Billy and Charlie produced 5,000 to 10,000 forgeries. Failed them, as usual, greed. A huge number of artifacts began to arouse the suspicions of specialists.
In 1858, Henry Sayer Cuming, in his lecture to the British Archaeological Association, called these artifacts "a very crude attempt to deceive the public" and strongly condemned them. The text of the lecture was published by respected editions of The Gentleman's Magazine and The Athenaeum. Counterfeit sales levels have plummeted.
Well-known antiques dealer George Eastwood, who traded these items, sued these magazines for libel. The court did not find the publications guilty, since Eastwood was not named there. But even though George Eastwood lost the case, no one ever proved that the product was fake. The trade continued quietly.
Not everyone was satisfied with this. Charles Reid, a British politician and antiquarian, decided to start his own investigation. He began asking people about the Shadwell construction site, where Billy and Charlie claimed they found the artifacts. Billy began to speculate that he had made his way to the site by bribing the guards. Reed never found anyone else to find such things on the set. This struck him as strange. Two homeless people could not have carried out the excavation so efficiently.
Charles Reed found a scavenger who was ready to confirm in court under oath that Billy and Charlie were selling fake antiquities. Reed paid a scavenger to track down Smith and Eaton as they do. He found out where their workshop was, hacked it and stole the uniforms. These forms Reed exhibited at a meeting of the London Society of Antiquaries as proof that the things that the Victorian aristocracy literally fell in love with are nothing more than fakes.
Despite all the efforts of Charles Reed and the complete exposure of cunning criminals, the actions of Billy and Charlie were never widely publicized. Maybe due to the fact that eminent experts were ashamed to admit how they were cheated by two illiterate thieves. Or maybe because these fakes continued to be sold in antique shops, not wanting to lose profits.
The swindlers have even improved their skill in the production of counterfeits. In 1867, they were arrested at the request of the priest, to whom they foisted a fake. The criminals were released for lack of evidence. It is not known how much longer this could go on, but in January 1870, Charles Eaton unexpectedly dies of tuberculosis. Without an accomplice, Billy stopped doing so well and his tracks were lost. Nobody heard more about William Smith.
The life work of two illiterate London thieves, who so skillfully deceived the entire British elite, lives on now, thanks to their products. You can still find them on sale today, and several London museums keep them in their collections.
If you are interested in this topic, read our article. 10 clever forgeries that museums mistook for originals
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