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The fine art of making it by faking it

Why does forgery appeal to students? Nick Groom understands perfectly For some years I have been teaching forgery: its history and.

literature, and its theory and practice. Students have consistently worked remarkably hard and proved wonderfully inventive - in one session we were treated to such things as a lost poem by James Joyce, a TV documentary on a young contemporary artist, a newly discovered tape of John Lennon singing Oasis songs and a glimpse of that holiest of holy relics, the foreskin of Christ.

The history of authenticity and the ways in which it can be manipulated clearly strikes a chord with students, but what if they graduate to attributing paintings for an auction house, recruiting TV chat show guests or providing degrees via the internet?

Undergraduates are read the riot act on plagiarism as soon as they arrive at university, yet popular culture now goes under the name of "retro" (or retrospective) style and is saturated with allusions, unacknowledged quotations and thefts.

Not that students are not sassy in creatively challenging the canons of authenticity, as those "holidaying" art finalists from Leeds University showed. It is just that they found themselves embroiled in an appeal over the validity of their degree show, whereas Alan Sokal can hoax an academic journal with impunity and William Boyd can merrily explode New York pretensions with his fictitious memoir and paintings of Nat Tate: An American Artist.

Authenticity is the infatuation of the moment, whether in the hands of sceptics doubting the sincerity of mourners for Princess Diana or City concerns that the introduction of 13 billion euro banknotes in January 2002 will inspire counterfeiters to dump hundreds of millions of fake notes on the public.

The primary concern with fraud in the academy is to protect against plagiarism. The argument is seldom made that intellectual property might be considered as much theft as any other form of property. Instead, plagiarism is viewed as a damned spot of deep dishonour that, it is imagined, will dye the entire oeuvre of a writer and is almost impossible to scrub out.

But plagiarism, which is passing off the work of another as one's own, should be distinguished from forgery, or passing off one's own work as that of another. In forgery there is no pre-existent original: it is, in a sense, creative work and may help us to understand the canons of artistic and academic authenticity and why they are under such scrutiny.

Most academic forgery is hoaxing: unfinished works that, once enough people have been duped, are brought to a shattering conclusion with some scornful revelation. The 18th-century Shakespeare editor George Steevens forged a marble memorial to King Hardyknute and displayed it in a shop window to ensnare members of the Society of Antiquaries, who had already enjoyed a lecture on the monument before he exploded their pretensions by admitting his trick. More recently, a fragment of the sayings of Isis was discovered and submitted with a supporting article to an Egyptology journal. When checked, these second-century hieroglyphs appeared to be the sayings of Jesus, part of the Gospel of St Thomas. The Jesus forger primed his satirical timebomb by adopting a joke name (Batson D. Sealing), which in this case exploded prematurely.

Other forgeries are less parodic and lack this dimension of disclosure, usually for financial reasons. Mark Hofmann's Oath of a Freeman, a broadside that purported to be the first piece of text printed in America (1639), was offered to the Library of Congress for $1.5 million.

Irrespective of whether it read well, the Oath had a good provenance and responded accurately to chemical tests. It was exposed only after Hofmann literally, if accidentally, blew himself up and confessed from his sickbed. Close examination of the Oath then showed incongruous internal elements of typesetting and spacing, culminating in the identification of a minute shard of silicon embedded in the ink.

In other words, deductive bibliographical scholarship needed the confirmation of a legal testimony and forensic analysis. So the definition of forgery, and therefore of the arts generally, is less to do with aesthetic worth and more to do with material status as verified by other disciplines.

There are, though, more creative examples of forgery. In the 18th-century, Thomas Chatterton produced the works of a fictitious 15th-century monk, meticulously presented in faded ink and arcane calligraphy on antique parchments, larded with false learning and fake scholarship. The mechanisms of authenticity (footnotes, references, provenance) were forged as assiduously as the medieval poetry itself: in fact, the two parts are inextricable and constitute the literary work. It is a form of experimental fiction that extends a story beyond the immediate confines of the page and its editorial matter and questions the authority of the codes that determine the representation of reality.

This is what appeals to students today. They watch Brass Eye or Ali G, fake TV shows with real guests who believe they are engaged in de facto debate; they enjoy films such as The Blair Witch Project, in which the conventions of reality cinema are unravelled; and they visit art shows packed with psuedo-exhibits, such as Los Angeles's Museum of Jurassic Technology.

The ubiquity of faking in the late 20th century does not convey a gratuitous desire persistently to bear false witness, but presents the opportunity to forge an identity that is not merely made up of the projections of current ways of representing authenticity.

Nick Groom is lecturer in English at the Exeter University. His The Making of Percy's Reliques has just been published.

* UNTRUE CONFESSIONS

In 1995, Swiss clarinet maker Binjamin Wilkomirski published a Holocaust memoir, Fragments: Memories of a Childhood, 1939-1948.

The writing was compared to that of Homer, Shakespeare and Primo Levi and won the Jewish Quarterly award for non-fiction. Granta then published an essay by Elena Lappin, editor of JQ, arguing that Fragments was forged: Wilkomirski's real name was Bruno Dossekker (or perhaps Bruno Grosjean) and he spent the war in Switzerland, not concentration camps. Lappin argued that if Wilkomirski had broken the contract between author and reader, the book should be reclassified or withdrawn. In other words, Fragments was no longer "achingly beautiful" (in one critic's words), but should be censored: the literary genre of the memoir is to be judged on the authenticity of the life behind it rather than the intrinsic quality of the writing.

Although Wilkomirski did say that "it was always the free choice of the reader to read my book as literature or to take it as a personal document", he has been "performing" his part as a Holocaust survivor rather too well by bursting into tears during readings.

* LESSER SPOTTED FLYING PIG

The Museum of Jurassic Technology, a permanent collection of wonders and curiosities includes exhibits on:

* The deprong mori or "piercing devil" (Myotis lucifugus), a small bat able to fly through solid objects by increasing the frequency of its echolocations until they reach the threshold of X-rays. A single example, captured by Donald R. Griffith in 1952, remains "eternally frozen in a mass of solid lead"

* A heliotropic sunflower clock, in which a sunflower is attached to a cork and floated in a reservoir of water. As the blossom rotates to face the sun, a pointer through its centre tells the time along the side of a suspended dial.

For more on the museum, visit www.mjt.org/

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