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Banner: Detecting the Truth: Fakes, Forgeries and TrickeryBanner: Detecting the Truth: Fakes, Forgeries and Trickery

Educational Resources

The resource is being field-tested and is subject to revision.

Is it a fake or a forgery? Did it matter then? Does it matter now?

Overall Expectations

  • understand the concepts "fake" and "forgery"
  • understand the historical significance of these concepts and their importance to historical thinking
  • appreciate the historical value of fake and forged documents
  • use criteria and evidence to reach a reasoned judgment


The overarching critical thinking challenge invites students to decide which of various fake or forged documents held in the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collection have sufficient historical value to be retained in the collection, and which should be purged to make room for new materials. Three supporting critical challenges help students arrive at their decisions:

  1. Distinguishing the Forgery from the Fake: Students examine various descriptions of historical deceptions and determine which are forgeries and which are fakes, then apply this knowledge to materials held in LAC's collection.
  2. Exploring the Historical Significance: Students decide the historical importance of materials found in the attic of a fictitious family member.
  3. Advise the Curator: Students advise LAC's curator about how to deal with the issue of too many documents and not enough space, and recommend which historical deceptions should be kept and which should be purged from the collection.

Critical Challenge 1

Distinguishing the Forgery from the Fake


In this challenge, students are provided with definitions of "forgery" and "fake" and are then presented with descriptions of various historical deceptions such as the Shroud of Turin and Shakespeare's lost play Vortigern and Rowena. Their challenge is to find the forgery among the fakes. Students then apply their understanding of forgeries and fakes by selecting a specific piece of archival material from LAC's collection and determining if it is a forgery or a fake.

Setting the Context

To provide students with a context for the challenge, present the following scenario:

The curator at LAC has a dilemma and needs your help! Held in LAC's collection of archival material are several forgeries, fakes and frauds. New historical documents are arriving on a weekly basis, but there is not enough storage space to keep everything. The curator will have to get rid of some materials, but which? Simply dumping forgeries and fakes is not the solution -- for several reasons: 1) Some forgeries and fakes are so clever or so rare that they have as much historical value as the originals; 2) altered materials sometimes provide valuable insights into the values and morals of the time; and 3) the outstanding quality of the work may make them valuable, or in some cases, more rare than the originals because only a few of the forged items were created. (In these cases the scarcity of the fakes or forgeries relative to the supply of originals makes the fake or forgery more valuable.) Herein lies the the curator's dilemma: What to keep?

Suggested Activities

Step 1: Organize students into pairs and provide each pair with definitions of "forgery" and "fake" (Appendix 1) and descriptions of historical deceptions (Appendix 2).

Step 2: Invite students to search for the forgery among the fakes by reading the descriptions of the historical deceptions. Suggest that one member of each pair read the description and the other respond by indicating whether the deception is an example of a forgery or a fake. Encourage the students to take turns reading the descriptions and offering their responses -- to provide practice in reading aloud and in active listening.

Step 3: Encourage partners to discuss their conclusions by citing evidence from the description to support their decisions. Once students have completed this activity, suggest they select one or more of the historical deceptions from LAC's website Detecting the Truth: Fakes, Forgeries and Trickery provided below. Invite students to work with their partner to determine if the selected historical deception is an example of a forgery or a fake. Remind students to use the definitions and to consult Detecting the Truth for guidance as well as evidence to support their conclusion.

Imaginary portrait of Jacques Cartier, circa 1844

Imaginary portrait of Jacques Cartier, circa 1844

Painting of an imaginary scene of the meeting between Laura Secord and Lieutenant Fitzgibbon, circa 1925

Imaginary scene of the meeting between Laura Secord and Lieutenant Fitzgibbon, circa 1925

Altered photograph of Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King in Banff, 1939-1940

Altered photograph of Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King in Banff, 1939-1940

Counterfeit postage stamp from Prince Edward Island, after June 1, 1870

Counterfeit postage stamp from Prince Edward Island, after June 1, 1870

Fake order from Bishop of Qu‚bec dated 1759, created after 1810

Fake order from Bishop of Québec dated 1759, created after 1810

Counterfeit $1 bill, 1870

Counterfeit $1 bill, 1870

Critical Challenge 2

Exploring the Historical Significance


Historians are continually faced with the challenge of deciding what evidence to use and what not to use. In this challenge, students are invited to think like an archivist and a historian by considering the significance of historical evidence found in a fictitious family member's attic. In this mini-challenge, students decide the importance of evidence.

Setting the Context

Present students with the following fictitious scenario:

Your great-aunt has recently passed away and you have just learned she has left her house and its contents to your family. The attic is filled with antiques, papers, letters, official documents, photographs and a few surprises -- your great-aunt was a talented artist who created copies of paintings by the members of the Group of Seven and by Emily Carr, and of stamps. Your task is to sort through the materials in the attic and to decide what to keep and what to throw out. You have sought help from some of the brightest and most insightful people you know. Your 'team' includes a close family member, a museum curator, an economic historian, and a social historian.

Your challenge is to identify the 10 most historically significant items in the attic. To reach a consensus will require both discussion and compromise.

Suggested Activities

Step 1: Provide each group with a list of the items found in the attic (Appendix 4). Several items may require explanation.You may wish to provide background information on some items, or suggest students divide up the items and do some independent inquiry by talking to their parents or using the Internet or the library. They then share what they have found with the group.

Step 2: Invite students to work in groups of four to examine the items in Aunt Bessie's attic. Each student is to have a different perspective, based on the following personas:

  • a museum curator interested in understanding daily life in the mid-20th century
  • an economic historian researching changes in standard of living during the 20th century
  • a social historian researching race, gender and social attitudes of the mid-20th century

Step 3: Suggest the students use the following criteria to determine whether the items are historically significant or insignificant:

Historically significant*

  • rare document
  • provides important insights into values/ attitudes of the past
  • has legal value

Historically insignificant

  • plentiful document
  • provides little or no new information
  • has no legal value

*Historical significance is culturally defined. What may be of historical significance for Canadians might not be for Egyptians or the Chinese, for example.

Step 5: Invite each group to post their list of the 10 most significant items. Each group will then compare their conclusions with those of the other groups. If time permits, organize a class discussion that involves an analysis of the decisions made by other groups. Each group may then revise its list, if appropriate.

Step 6: Once students have considered the historical significance of the listed items, invite them to apply the same criteria to the historical documents they have previously selected from Detecting the Truth: Fakes, Forgeries and Trickery.

Critical Challenge 3

Advise the Curator


Invite student pairs to select from and work with one or more of the documents from Detecting the Truth: Fakes, Forgeries and Trickery. Inform them that each pair will decide whether the documents they have selected should be kept, used in the exhibition, or removed from the collection. Students are to share their recommendations with the class and to provide sound reasons to support their decisions.

Suggested Activities

Step 1: Instruct students to learn more about the artefact they are assessing by consulting Detecting the Truth, which contains text about their selected artefact. In some instances, encourage students to broaden the scope of their research to an area (such as coins, stamps or maps). The following Appendixes contain graphic organizers designed to assist students in arriving at a reasoned response:

Appendix 3: Identifying Fakes and Forgeries: provides a quick reference checklist to support the concepts "fake" and "forgery." Students are to list evidence that supports the proper identification of the material.

Appendix 5: Assessing Historical Significance: provides students with a continua for assessing the historical significance of forgeries and fakes. If students are to determine the criteria for determining historical significance, modify the Appendix to match the criteria used.

Appendix 6: Recommendation to the Curator: provides students with a template they can use for making their final recommendation.

Appendix 1

Definitions of "fake" and "forgery"

A faked document is an original document that has been altered to trick people into believing it is rare and valuable. For example, the creator falsely states the age or origin of the document to deceive people into believing it is historically significant and therefore of considerable value. A recently created will or diary attributed to a person who never created such a document would be a fake.

A forgery is an imitation or a copy that is represented as the original. It is created to trick people into believing it is the real thing. An exact copy of a painting by Tom Thomson, falsely said to have been painted by Thomson, would be a forgery.

Appendix 2

Historical Deceptions


Fake or forgery?

Shroud of Turin: One of history's most famous deceptions is the burial shroud (cloth) known as the Shroud of Turin. It bears the image of a crucified man, and was thought to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. The Shroud of Turin first turned up during the Middle Ages, and recent carbon dating shows that both the cloth and the image were actually created during that period of time, centuries before the death of Christ. It is not, therefore, the true burial cloth of Jesus; in fact, the original shroud has never been found.

Graphical element fake

Graphical element forgery


Hitler's Diaries: In 1981, 50 journals considered to be the diaries of Adolf Hitler resurfaced after, it was claimed, they had been recovered from a plane crash and hidden for decades. In fact, the diaries turned out to be a hoax carried out by Konrad Kujau, a German dealer in military artefacts.

Graphical element fake

Graphical element forgery


James Ossuary: In November 2002, the Royal Ontario Museum thought they had landed one of the most exciting exhibitions when they were the first museum to display the ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus. An ossuary is a coffin or burial urn containing bones. The authenticity of the James ossuary (found in Israel in 2002) has been challenged and many now believe it is a modern creation that fooled many people.

Graphical element fake

Graphical element forgery


Counterfeit $50 Bill: Despite the elaborate design of Canada's paper money, criminals continue to find ways to "print their own money." Over the past few years, many stores have started using ultraviolet detectors to catch counterfeit bills, while other stores refuse to accept $50 or $100 bills, fearing they may not be legitimate.

Graphical element fake

Graphical element forgery


The Case of the Dinosaur-bird Fossil: In 1999, National Geographic ran a cover story about a stunning new find in China: a feathered dinosaur that appeared to be the link between dinosaurs and modern birds. As it turned out, National Geographic ended up with "egg on their face" when it was revealed that the skeleton of the feathered dinosaur (Archaeoraptor Liaoningensis) had been created by an unscrupulous fossil-seller who blended dinosaur bones with bird bones.

Graphical element fake

Graphical element forgery


Shakespeare's Lost Play: During the late 18th century, William Henry Ireland successfully sold several fragments of the plays Hamlet and King Lear, claiming they contained the original handwriting of William Shakespeare. In reality, Ireland had copied Shakespeare's hand. He pushed his luck even further when he announced the discovery of a previously unknown Shakespeare drama called Vortigern and Rowena. When the text was closely examined by experts, it became apparent that the play was not by Shakespeare but was written by Ireland himself. Nonetheless, a theatre producer staged the play on April2, 1796 -- as an April Fools Day joke!

Graphical element fake

Graphical element forgery


Appendix 3

Artefacts From Great-Aunt Bessie's Attic

Items found

Possible significance

Family photographs


Diaries by Great-Aunt Bessie, from 1923 to her death in 2002


Eaton's catalogues dating back to the 1920s


Land deeds for Grampa John's farm


Tax returns dating back to the 1920s


School textbooks from the 1920s and 1930s


Trunk full of clothing from the 1920s to the 1940s


Copies of Emily Carr paintings, painted by Great-Aunt Bessie, that are nearly identical to the originals


Love letters exchanged between Great-Aunt Bessie and an Asian male, written between 1940 and 1952


Newspaper clippings from the 1980s


Drafts of editorials on social attitudes in the 1950s in Great-Aunt Bessie's handwriting, but signed William Butler


Forged stamps from the 1930s to the 1950s that are of poor quality


Tools and equipment used to create forged stamps


A television set (in working order) from the mid-1950s


Appendix 4

Identifying Fakes and Forgeries



  • an original document pretending to be something it is not
  • created to trick people into believing it is a rare and valuable document
  • is not a copy of an original as no such document actually existed


  • a copy of an original, created to convince people that it is real
  • an imitation
  • a replica of something that has value

Evidence that the material is a fake or a forgery


The ______________________________ (name of archival material) is an example of a:

Graphical element fake

Graphical element forgery


Appendix 5

Assessing Historical Significance

The archival material is:


Somewhat rare

Somewhat common


Evidence to support rating:

The archival material provides:

Insightful new information

Much new information

Little new information

No new information

Evidence/examples to support rating:

The quality of the archival material is


High quality

Reasonably well made

Poorly made

Evidence to support rating:

Overall Rating: This document has:

Considerable historical significance

Some historical significance

Limited historical significance


Appendix 6

Recommendation to the Curator

The __________________ is an example of a:

Graphical element fake

Graphical element forgery

We recommend the document be:

Graphical element Purged from the collection

Graphical element Retained in storage for possible future use

The following are the three most important reasons to support the recommendation:




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