Book Excerpt

PRINCE OF FORGERS. Joseph Rosenblum


New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 1998. 8vo. cloth, dust jacket. 200 pages. First English translation of the 1870 edition. On a cold, damp day in February 1870, the Correctional Tribunal of Paris sentenced Vrain-Denis Lucas to prison for forging and selling over 27,000 historical letters to many of France's leading collectors. The sensational trial exposed the most colossal literary fraud ever perpetrated. The trial revealed that for 19 years Lucas created fake literary masterpieces... READ MORE

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ON 5 MAY 1888 L’Illustration began serializing Alphonse Daudet’s novel L’Immortal, the main character of which is Pierre-Alexandre-Léonard Astier-Réhu, historian and member of the Académie française. M. Astier-Réhu is writing a book entitled The Unknown Galileo, “based upon most interesting, hitherto unpublished documents."1 These documents have been sold to Astier-Réhu by a bookbinder named Albin Fage. Astier-Réhu’s relationship with Fage dates from the latter’s visit to the historian to inquire about a letter concerning Galileo written by Marie de’ Medici to Pope Urban VIII. After Astier-Réhu’s had certified that the autograph letter was genuine. Fage declared that he also had “Pope Urban’s reply, Galileo’s letter of thanks to the [French] queen” and many other such documents.2 To Astier-Réhu’s question regarding the provenance of these treasures, Fage replied that they belong to “a certain aged maiden lady of noble birth, who was forced to sell, piece by piece, a very valuable collection which had been in her family since before Louis XIV.”3 According to Fage, in her possession is “an inexhaustible treasure of documents of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, varied, interesting, throwing a new light on the past, sometimes overturning with a single word or a date accepted ideas concerning men and facts.”4 Taken to England during the French Revolution, some of the papers had suffered water damage, but most remain in fine condition. Fage says that he plans to offer the manuscripts to various collectors, but Astier-Réhu insists on buying all of them himself, and he pays Fage as much as five hundred, a thousand, even two thousand francs for a single item. In the course of two years the historian pays 160,000 francs for these autograph documents. Numbering in excess of ten thousand, these manuscripts include autograph letters by Cardinal Richelieu, Colbert, lsaac Newton, Galileo, and Pascal. Also among these papers are three letters from the Emperor Charles V to Rabelais; for these alone M. Bos has offered 20,000 francs, but Astier-Réhu refuses to part with them. Yet another piece in the collection is a letter from Catherine the Great of Russia to Denis Diderot on the subject of the Académie française, a document that Astier-Réhu secures from Fage just as the historian is preparing an address to that body, a speech that will be attended by the Grand Duke Leopold of Finland, Catherine’s great-grandson. Astier-Réhu presents this letter to the duke. To the Academy itself Astier-Réhu gives a letter from the poet Jean de Rotrou to Cardinal Richelieu concerning the statutes of that body.

Astier-Réhu’s wife is less sentimental about the documents than is her husband. Her son needs 20,000 francs, which she secures by selling to Bos the three letters of Charles V. Bos in turn sells them to Baron Huchenard, who detects an 1836 watermark on the paper, indicating that these cannot date from the sixteenth century. Astier-Réhu’s book on Galileo is attacked by the Academy of Florence, as are the documents he included. Astier-Réhu is compelled to acknowledge that his manuscripts have all been forged. Fage is arrested and sentenced to five years in prison; Astier-Réhu drowns himself in the Seine the night after the trial.

Like Anatole France’s “Scolastica,” a story which is included as an appendix to the present volume, Daudet’s novel is based on the activities of Vrain-Denis Lucas, Fage’s prototype. The quotation from a letter of Charles V to Rabelais is taken verbatim from a Lucas forgery: “To François Rabelias, master in all sciences and good letters.”5 In some particulars Daudet exaggerated: Lucas was sentenced to two years in prison rather than five; Michel Chasles, the original of Astier-Réhu, outlived Lucas’ trial by a decade and died a respected mathematician. In describing the forgeries, though, Daudet under-represented the quantity and nature of Lucas’ efforts. Lucas created over 27,000 documents, and he did not restrict himself to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Among the pieces that he sold to Chasles were six letters by Sappho, ten letters by Plato, twenty-eight by Pliny, ten by Seneca, three by Mary Magdalene, one by Alexander the Great to Aristotle, and another by Mohammed to the king of France. Lucas even created an entire manuscript of the Roman de la rose, containing 1,107 pages. The complete inventory of Lucas’ fabrications, listed in the present volume, entitles him to be regarded as the most prolific forger of all time.

Chasles, a brilliant geometrician who in 1865 received the Copley Medal from the Royal Society (London) for his contributions to mathematics, almost certainly did not think that he was buying authentic documents executed by the supposed signers from antiquity through the Middle Ages, though Lucas probably hoped that his forgeries would be regarded as genuine. Lucas took pains to age the paper by submerging the documents in water—in his early attempts he left the letters in water too long and so had to invent the story of the shipwreck—holding the manuscripts over a smoking lamp, or burning the edges. Lucas also made crude approximations of Carolingian script and archaic orthography, but his texts are all essentially in modern French. The kindest interpretation to be placed on Chasles’ gullibility is that he believed that these letters had once existed (which is credulity enough) and had been preserved, transcribed, and perhaps translated by Alcuin and his scriptorium at Tours in the ninth century, and that in the sixteenth century they had been collected, once again transcribed, and at least somewhat modernized by Rabelais, acting with the encouragement of François I and Margaret d’Angoulême.  Such seems to be the implication of the account that Chasles presented to the Academy of Sciences at the session of 13 September 1869 when he conceded that the documents in his possession were not authentic. Yet in making this statement he was relying on precisely those manuscripts that Lucas had forged to explain their existence.

The more recent letters, those dating from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, Chasles did believe were original, and it is here that he exhibited the greatest willing suspension of disbelief. According to these thousands of documents supposedly executed by Pascal, Galileo, Newton, and other leading scientific and literary figures of the period, the credit for discovering the laws of gravity belonged to Pascal rather than to Newton, and the first moon of Saturn was found not by the Dutch Christian Huyghens but rather by Galileo. Like Astier-Réhu, Chasles was writing a book based on these revolutionary materials, and in July 1867 Chasles began publishing them in the Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences (Paris). He even donated twenty-three of his autograph documents to the Academy, including two letters from Jean de Rotrou to Cardinal Richelieu regarding the Académie française. Again Daudet’s fiction understates the facts.  The report here translated and the related documents appended recount the ensuing controversy, which engaged the leading scientists of nineteenth-century Europe and occupied the Academy of Sciences for over two years. Finally, on 13 September 1869, Chasles conceded that the documents were not authentic, but even then he could not believe that Lucas had forged them. One might imagine that a letter from Cleopatra to Julius Caesar could somehow have been repeatedly transcribed over the centuries and translated into French. As Horace Helbronner, Lucas’ defense attorney, pointed out, though, Sir David Brewster, biographer of Newton, had found no trace of correspondence between the English scientist and Pascal; yet Chasles supposedly owned 175 letters from Pascal to Newton. Letters from Rabelais were known to be scarce; Chasles bought 1,367 of them. Only twenty genuine letters by Jean de La Bruyère were known in the mid-1800s; Chasles’ collection contained 739. Classical and medieval texts might have been translated into French, but how explain Galileo’s or Kepler’s corresponding in French when Latin was the international language of scholarship, such that Newton composed his Principia (1687) in that language rather than in English? Nor was there any evidence that Galileo even knew French. Robert Grant’s criticism of the scientific calculations presented in the forgeries appears in this volume among the documents related to the case; surely here a mathematician as learned as Chasles should have detected grounds for skepticism.

Lucas’ uncanny ability to produce crucial documents at moments of crisis might also have given pause to one less willing than Chasles to be deceived. According to Lucas, the manuscripts belonged to an old man, a descendant of the comte de Boisjourdain who had assembled this remarkable archive. These documents were supposedly “scattered without order in the attic of a town house, in Paris.” This lack of organization explained why Lucas, who claimed to be acting only as the agent of this old man, brought random letters from various people and periods rather than complete files. Of course, he brought Chasles whatever had been forged in the past several days; a search of his residence uncovered no cache of documents, whether authentic or fabricated. Yet when the occasion demanded, Lucas could put his hands on manuscripts that proved curiously apt. On 7 October 1867 Chasles produced three letters in the hand of Galileo dated January, May, and June 1641. The session at the Academy on 11 November heard a letter sent by Robert Grant of the Glasgow Observatory, who pointed out that (a) Galileo had been blind since 1638 and (b) one of these letters from Galileo spoke of the satellites of Saturn, the first of which was not discovered until 1655. On 18 November Chasles was able to introduce twenty letters asserting that Galileo was merely feigning blindness to receive gentler treatment from the Inquisition, and that he had constructed a telescope through which he had seen one of Saturn’s moons. On 12 April 1869 Paul-Émile Breton de Champ pointed out that sixteen letters by Pascal and two fragments of a letter by Galileo, introduced by Chasles into the Academy’s Proceedings back in 1867, had been copied from Alexandre Savérien’s Histoire des philosophes modernes (Paris: Brunet, 1761–1767). On 19 April Chasles replied with three letters indicating that Savérien had copied his information from the original letters, which had once belonged to Madame de Pompadour and later had passed into the collection of Boisjourdain.

As the obituaries included here indicate, Chasles was not only highly respected as a mathematician but also much loved as a person. When Henri Bordier and Émile Mabille were asked by the court to examine the charge of forgery against Lucas, they faced a delicate task. Their report treats Chasles gently. Nor was Chasles the only one taken in by the documents. No less an historian than Louis Adolphe Thiers believed them authentic, as did certain members of the Academy. Indeed, on 5 April 1869 the permanent secretary of the Academy attested to their genuineness and rejected out of hand any possibility of fraud. Bordier and Mabille needed to prove to the court that the letters were spurious and that Lucas was their creator, yet they also had to explain how these palpable forgeries could have fooled Chasles and occupied the leading scientists of France for over two years. The report thus balances candor with kindness.

As Bordier and Mabille note, Lucas was not well educated. All his forgeries were in French because that was the only language he knew, and all were written on paper either because he had no skill in working with parchment or because parchment was too expensive or too difficult to obtain. Securing blank paper even a century or two old was hard enough; Lucas was one of those rare biblioklepts who sought to steal only blank leaves. Even so, like Fage, Lucas was indifferent to watermarks. Apart from producing a convincing ink and trying to use old paper (which, as already noted, he further aged synthetically), Lucas took few pains with his fabrications, beyond the extensive effort of producing so many. Perhaps he was too busy to try to imitate so many different hands and styles—the correspondents in his forgeries number in the hundreds. The report thoroughly documents the solecisms that abound in Lucas’ work, errors that should have inspired skepticism in anyone accustomed to working with manuscripts.

To extenuate to some extent the credulity of Chasles and his supporters, Bordier and Mabille dwelt on Lucas’ success with his ink, on his skill as a story teller in imagining the Boisjourdain archive, and on his skillful use of sources so that the texts attributed to various people often actually embodied their words. To the lay reader the most glaring absurdities would have been the letters from antiquity, but of these the Academy had no knowledge. Nor did the Academy know the full extent of Chasles’ hoard. He shared 381 letters out of the more than 27,000 that he had bought, and since these were largely transcriptions from scientific sources, they were relatively free from error—except for the impossibility that their contents could have been written by the people and at the dates Lucas assigned them. Bordier and Mabille more precisely identify the basis of Lucas’ success when they write that Chasles, “naturally imbued with the desire to prove a thesis, saw only that which agreed with his argument.” That “naturally” typifies the gentle treatment accorded Chasles. The Academy’s inability to expose the forgeries more rapidly is also extenuated, being ascribed to “surprise” and to “the confidence inspired by the eminent glory of M. Chasles as a geometrician and … the respect commanded by his character.” Bordier and Mabille further redeem the reputation of the Academy by noting that many members did reject the documents from the beginning. Why these individuals were not overwhelmed by surprise and Chasles’ reputation, and why the others could not recognize what should have been clear to them, are matters left unexamined.

While the report thus pursues an agenda, it remains the most comprehensive account of this audacious forgery. Exactly when Lucas began his operations remains unclear, nor can one be certain as to why he sought out Chasles in 1861, though the sequel proved Lucas’ choice to have been a stroke of genius. A lover of history as well as of old books and manuscripts, the thirty-four year old Lucas had come to Paris from the village of Châteaudun in 1852, hoping to secure employment in a library or bookstore. His limited education precluded such a post, and he ended up as an agent for a genealogical establishment that found, and no doubt also manufactured, pedigrees. Lucas’ first known forgery was prompted by a request from the marquis Antoine-Théodore Du Prat, who was seeking documentary evidence of his descent from Antoine Du Prat, chancellor of France and cardinal. The Letellier archive that employed Lucas could not supply the desired material, but Lucas could. The fifteen letters that Lucas fabricated, and that are described the Bordier-Mabille report (pp. 37–38) were published by the marquis in Glanes et Regains (gleanings and aftermaths) in 1865 (Versailles: Beau). This volume also contained two letters from Montaigne published the previous year by Felix-Sébastien Feuillet de Conches, regarded as the pre-eminent authority on French autographs. Yet these two letters were also the work of Lucas.

Like Chasles, these men were fooled because the forgeries flattered their vanity, in the one case genealogical and the other bibliophilic. Daudet’s Astier-Réhu buys Fage’s fabrications not only to further his research but also to prevent others from possessing the manuscripts. Bordier and Mabille say little about Chasles’ collecting mania, but they note that when he learned of the sale of four notes to a M. Belley, Chasles hastened to purchase them for 200 francs. Lucas at one point offered to return all of Chasles’ money in exchange for the documents; Chasles rejected the proposal. Chasles finally had Lucas arrested not because of all the latter’s forgeries but because Lucas had failed to supply some 3,000 additional documents that Chasles had requested, and Chasles, believing still that these manuscripts actually existed, feared that Lucas was planning to sell them to others, perhaps even, horror of horrors, to foreigners.

Astier-Réhu is prompted by documentary greed and a desire to revenge himself on political enemies by writing a revolutionary account of Galileo. Chasles shared the first of these motives, and he possessed the second at least in so far as he hoped to alter the history of science. Perhaps an argument with Paul-Émile Breton de Champ over Euclid’s porisms was a contributing factor. Chasles was also driven by a desire to render unto France the glory that England had unjustly snatched from her. Perhaps Lucas shared this patriotic zeal; perhaps he simply preyed on Chasles’. Ethnocentricity is apparent in giving Pascal the credit for Newton’s discoveries, and it pervades the letters of all periods. Alexander the Great urges Aristotle to visit France because the Macedonian conqueror regards that region “as being that which has brought the light [of learning] into the world.” Cleopatra writes to Julius Caesar that she plans to educate their son Caesarion at Marseilles (rather than Alexandria or Athens or Rome) because of the excellent climate and fine curriculum available in that French port. Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha agree with Alexander that “it must be from [France] that the light of learning must come.” Charles Martel informs the leader of the Moors that a handful of French soldiers will suffice to defeat hoards of would-be invaders. Is it too much to suggest that these forged letters echo a national sentiment characteristic of the Second Empire?

Whatever else impelled Lucas, money was a primary concern. From 1861 to 1869 Chasles paid Lucas between 140,000 and 150,000 francs for the false documents and for books to which Lucas had given spurious provenances. It is unclear what became of this sizable sum; at his trial Lucas claimed that he had spent all but a few thousand francs. Yet he apparently had neither the time nor the inclination to squander what Chasles gave him. The prosecution described Lucas’ Spartan routine:

He would leave his house at eleven o’clock and lunched, sometimes at the café Riche, when he had money, sometimes at a small restaurant, when money was lacking. All day he would work at the Imperial Library, and at night he would return to his house after having dined. He would not speak to anyone, and he went only to the house of M. Chasles.

Perhaps he gave the money to his mistress, who found ways to spend it while he toiled. Lucas himself, as the presiding judge noted, worked like a monk. For at least eight years forgery was Lucas’ job; and if he was well paid, in terms of effort he earned every sou. What became of Lucas after he served his two-year sentence is uncertain. Chasles continued to devote himself to matters mathematical.

Lucas’ fecundity shames other forgers, but he was hardly a unique figure in nineteenth-century France. In one of those ironies in which Clio delights, Chasles in 1851 assumed the seat in the Academy of Sciences vacated by Guglielmo Libri, who had decamped to England in 1848 just before he was to be arrested for robbing French libraries that he had been appointed to inspect. Libri was not only a biblioklept; he also, like Lucas after him, forged provenances to disguise his depredations or to enhance the value of purloined material. Thus, he added “Di Dante Alighieri” to a fourteenth-century manuscript, and “Pippinus rex Francorum” to Merovingian documents.6 From Châteaudun Lucas followed the Libri controversy, perhaps taking Libri as a role model. As soon as Chasles began publicizing his letters, many scientists suspected that they were forgeries, and the name of Libri was freely circulated as their author. Libri protested in a letter to the London Times, included among the related documents here; and of this crime at least he certainly was innocent.

Lucas’ defense counsel noted another contemporary forgery. In 1864 Louis Marie Paul Vogt, comte d’Hunolstein, issued his Correspondance inédité de Marie Antoinette7 (unpublished correspondence of Marie Antoinette) containing 132 letters. The third edition published that same year added nineteen more. All but two of these were spurious, yet for years Hunolstein retained confidence in their authenticity. In 1868 he published a fourth edition, which included a lengthy preface defending the letters. For these manuscripts he paid £3,400, or more than half the sum Chasles paid for his entire cache (which itself contained seventeen forged letters by Marie Antoinette). In the light of this forgery, Lucas’ prices seem absurdly low.

This was also the period when Constantine Simonides traveled across Europe offering ancient manuscripts to collectors and libraries. In the early 1850’s in Paris he befriended Marie Louis Jean André Charles de Martin du Tiral, comte de Marcellus, who was gathering material on the fifth-century a. d. Greek poet Nonnus. Simonides sought to assist by producing a biography of Nonnus by Demetrius of Magnesia, who did indeed write biographies of poets (who had the same names as cities), but who unhappily predated Nonnus by about five hundred years. To cite but one further example, in 1855 E. de Saint Maurice Cabany, Director-General of the Society of Archivists of France, published Moredun: A Tale of 1210 (London: S. Low and Son) as being by Sir Walter Scott. Cabany claimed that he owned a writing desk containing Scott’s manuscript. The novel, supposedly composed in 1826, refers to improvements made at Newcastle in the 1830’s.

The post-Napoleonic period provided unparalleled opportunities for collectors, as monastic and aristocratic libraries were dispersed. Between 1825 and 1835, 12,000 autograph documents were sold at auction in France. In the next five years, nearly the same number, 11,000, were offered. The period 1841–1845 witnessed the sale of 15,000, and between 1846 and 1859 another 32,000 came onto the market.8 As Lucas’ lawyer observed, as sales proliferated, “Demand brought forth supply; soon documents were lacking, and the appetite of lovers [of autograph documents] being sharpened, forgery was known to satisfy it.”

The story of Lucas and Chasles is thus fascinating but hardly unique. Forgery is as old as literature itself. In the catalogue of ships in Book II of the Iliad are the lines, “And Ajax led from Salamis twelve ships, and stationed them where the battalions of the Athenians stood” (lines 557–558). Aristarchus of Samothrace (c. 215-143 b.c.), head of the Alexandrian Library, rejected the Athenian allusion as a sixth-century b.c. interpolation designed to enhance the prestige of Athens. As Anthony Grafton writes in Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), “For 2,500 years and more, forgery has amused its uninvolved observers, enraged its humiliated victims, [and] flourished as a literary genre” (p.5). From a pseudo-Sophoclean play, the Parthenopaeus, created in the fourth century b.c. by Dionysius the Renegade, to the Hitler Diaries and the spurious documents linking President Kennedy to Marilyn Monroe, greed and credulity have joined with other motives such as patriotism, filial piety,9 or the imp of the perverse to bedevil scholars and entertain everyone else. If Lucas’ story does not point a moral, it does adorn a tale.

A Note on the Translation

The letters forged by Lucas include some attempted archaisms. I have not reproduced these, but, for the most part I have retained the punctuation of the original. Most typographical errors I have corrected silently; my editorial emendations appear within square brackets.

1The Immortal,” to Which Is Added “The Struggle for Life.” Trans. George Burnham Ives, Boston: Little, Brown, 1900, p. 2.

2 Ibid., p. 199.

3 Ibid., p. 200.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., p. 105. Compare with the text quoted on p. 36.

6 P. Alessandra Maccioni Ruju and Marco Mostert, The Life and Times of Guglielmo Libri (Hilversum; Verloren, 1995), p. 211.

7 Paris: E. Dentu, 1864.

8 J. A. Farrar, Literary Forgeries (London: Longman’s, Green, 1907), p. 215.

9 For example, William Henry Ireland’s desire to supply his father with a document in the hand of Shakespeare.