The Flight Of The ‘Alalā: A Call For Studies Into Literary Fraud

This work focuses on various aspects of fraud and its relation to historical studies. With a core focus on literary fraud, it serves as an introduction to this field and as a guide for relevant future studies.



1 – The Eighth Circle of Hell

2 – Limbo For Semantics

3 – The ‘Alalā

4 – Recommended Reading

I’ve prepared this presentation mainly to raise awareness of the role fraud plays in historical studies. I will start by touring the territory that fraud occupies and commenting on some things to keep in mind. I then discuss the inhabitants and their descriptions.

1 – The Eighth Circle of Hell

Falsifiers (also known as fraudsters) are placed in the lowest level of the eighth circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno for they knowingly deceive. Fraud is committed when a party intentionally deceives another party. Party here being defined as a person or a group of persons. Fraud comes in many forms and plays a serious role in historical studies.

In Canto 17 of Dante’s Inferno, Dante and Virgil are brought to the eighth circle of hell by Geryon, a chimerical beast symbolic of fraud. This creature is not to be confused with the three-headed Geryon that was slain by Hercules. Dante’s Geryon was depicted with the body of a winged serpent, the paws of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, and the face of a kind, gracious, and just man. This creature, looking like a cousin to the manticore, does well in portraying the life and anatomy of fraud. Imagine walking through the dark corridors of historical scholarship when a trustworthy and inviting face emerges from the shadows. As you approach this welcoming visitor, it steps out from the fog to reveal a body composed of potentially dangerous animals. Fraud is like snakes, lions, and scorpions in the sense that it won’t always hurt you, but it has the potential to. Knowledge of these animals is important when observing them or interacting with them. Some snakes are harmless, but others can deliver enough venom in one bite to kill a hundred people. Lions and scorpions can be deadly too, although they are not always so. Knowing where they live and how they hunt can help prevent ever becoming their prey. The same goes for fraud. Knowing where and how fraud thrives can allow you to avoid becoming a victim and allow you to help others do the same. However, even though the idea of safety is attractive, it is to be noted that we all have our limitations, and we can all be taken in by deception given the proper circumstances.

Unidentified fraud posing as historical evidence is a problem for historical studies because it distorts our perception of the past and it acts as a mirage of things we think happened. While fraud has been long studied, it has mostly been studied in relation to economic activity, such as credit card fraud, or in relation to political activity, for example, voting fraud. Lesser so, these studies have been applied to art, mostly for the purpose of valuation. Even lesser than that, they have been applied to historical studies.

Fraudulent activity is by no means absent from the professional world at large. There are many people alive today who possess the motives, means, and opportunities to commit the type of fraud that is especially problematic for historians, and they do commit it. Oscar White Muscarella is an archeologist who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for about 45 years, from 1964 to 2009. From what I know about him, I think he’s a great scholar who is worthy of attention. In 2016, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology and History, Daniel T. Potts, complimented Oscar by saying, “Muscarella has been a vocal and tireless champion of ethics and the exposure of criminal and unethical behavior on the part of collectors and museums for decades, and more than any other scholar, he has underscored the damage inflicted upon scholarship by the naïve incorporation of unexcavated artifacts alongside excavated ones in studies that seek to elucidate the past”.[6, p.528] Oscar’s life is fascinating but I don’t have the time here to go into the depths of his background, education, activism, scandals, and censorship. I do have an article up on my website titled Oscar White Muscarella that talks about all that for anyone interested in learning more (

To help describe the world in which fraud thrives, I’m going to briefly focus on the 25 anecdotes Oscar provided in the introduction to his now classic book The Lie Became Great, published in 2000. The anecdotes serve to give an impression of the range of what he calls “the forgery culture”. While his book, and these stories, are centered mainly around the art world, I think it would be interesting and useful, to compile a collection of similar anecdotes for the presence of the forgery culture in the literary world. Find the anecdotes at The Ecosystem of Forgery:

With these short stories, we can get a glimpse of the forgery culture in the art world. Common are the fears of harming reputations, and common are the attempts to suppress scholarship. Large efforts have been made to minimize the scope of fraudulent activity, but it has thrived throughout the centuries and it still thrives today. Oscar presented the results of reports estimating how many forgeries are in existence. He mentioned Hall (1990), which reported 600 objects each year are determined to be forgeries at Oxford University; Low (1993) estimated half of the “Marlik-like vessels on the market are forgeries”[1, p.9]; a powerhouse among the world’s largest brokers of fine and decorative art, jewelry, and collectibles, Sotheby reports about half of the objects brought to them are forgeries; and he tops it off with Norick (1993), which reported that about 25,000 pre-Columbian art forgeries enter the market annually.

Even Oscar’s enemy, the once director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Thomas Hoving, apparently wasn’t shy about the number of fakes in existence. In 1996, Thomas reported that out of some 50,000 works he had examined over the course of 15 years, 40% or more of them were forgeries or at the least questionable. That’s over 20,000 forged objects. As for the literary field, and traveling back in time a bit, Anthony Grafton reported that an estimated 66% of all documents given to the clergy prior to 1100 were fakes.[7, p.24] There’s really no shortage of fakes in the world, and all the major collections possess them.

Oscar’s introduction has quite a bit to say about fraudulent provenances too. A provenance is the history of an object from its inception to our present day. Forging provenance is creating a fake narrative about an object’s history. So while an object may be authentic, the historical narrative accompanying it might be a fantasy. I mention this here because I have a special interest in the provenances of the world’s most important historical manuscripts, many of which who’s provenances are either non-existent or incredibly shallow. In the words of the papyrologist and ancient historian Roberta Mazza, “Museums and researchers often describe the origins of a particular object … with only a few words and a date. This is a huge problem”.[7]

Concerns have also been raised about to what extent any of this information about fraud should be made accessible to wider audiences. It is a double-edged sword. On one end, the information is useful for scholars and lay-people alike who want to expose and avoid fraud. On the other, the information is useful for the fraudsters in that it educates them on the methods of exposure which are most valued, prompting them to figure out ways to avoid detection, similar to putting false blips on a radar, or avoiding being seen at all. The stories from Oscar are good for those who wish to deter the forgery culture but they also give ideas on how you can add to it.

Fundamentally, fraud involves mislabeling. Mislabeling occurs when false labels are attached to a creation, and this can be an issue for historical studies. Unlike fraud itself, mislabeling is not always intentional. If the goal of labeling something is to label it accurately, then mislabeling is an error, a mistake. Thus arises the sin of mislabeling. It’s a sin that can get you sentenced to the eighth circle of hell, but not always.

I invented the term sin of mislabeling in reference to a quote that I’ve seen used in a number of publications. Read the discussion at The Sin of Mislabeling:

The lesson to be learned from that story is that mislabeling is to be avoided and corrected whenever possible. In the way that the methods of attack from dangerous animals can be dealt with through study, the various creations which cause mislabeling can be studied in order to evade being damaged by them. What is necessary for this is proper identification. Approaching a lion in the wild and believing it to be a sheep can get you killed. Similarly, approaching a forgery believing it’s the real deal is an action best not made as it can have negative results, albethey typically not death.

This brings us to the next section of my presentation, semantical limbo, the place where creations and their definitions are suspended until being judged worthy or unworthy by whoever chooses to pluck them from the pool. I’ve included this part to discuss the various definitions of words related to fraud. This will help with determining exactly what type of creatures we are dealing with.

2 – Limbo For Semantics

I’ve compiled a list of 20 terms relevant for this field. I’ll be going through them one by one to paint a picture of the terrain and its inhabitants. I recognize two types of fraud. One kind is meant to deceive forever while the other is designed to deceive temporarily. These are known as forgeries and hoaxes, respectively. Getting down to the roots of those, forgeries and hoaxes are both creations. This brings us to the first item currently on my list: a creation.

See the full discussion @

You might not agree with the definitions I have chosen to ascribe to relevant terms, but if anyone has any doubt about what exactly I’m referring to, this collection of words and meanings is available. Additionally, if anyone wants to use these definitions, they are free for the taking. The main point of going over the definitions is to generate precise meanings for discuss, so that work of a higher quality can be produced.

3 – The ‘Alalā

Let’s take a step out of limbo and focus on a close relative of the birds of paradise, the ‘Alalā. ‘Alalā are part of the crow family and are native to Hawaii. Hence its nickname, “the Hawaiian crow”. There were less than 150 ‘Alalā known to be alive in the entire world in 2017. This makes them one of the rarest birds on Earth. For perspective, in 2013, there were an estimated 5 million Canadian Geese in North America alone.[5] That’s about 33,300 geese per one ‘Alalā. The Hawaiian crows also belong to a small group of bird species which naturally create and use tools, the fact of which undoubtedly adds to their rarity.[3] They possess high intelligence, build forests, and are deeply respected in Hawaiian culture.[4]

Now, you may be wondering why I’ve bothered mentioning this bird. Aside from my fascination with the life on Earth, I chose this bird as the mascot for my future studies into literary fraud. I was inspired to do this by a quote in a chapter by Earle Havens titled Babelic Confusion, published in 2018.

“…what still seems a rare bird is any sustained attempt to analyze the literary enterprise of forgery more broadly across time and through many different media.”
Earle A. Havens (2018)[1, p.37]

Earle Havens is the Nancy H. Hall Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University. I agree with him and also think that even sustained attempts to analyze the enterprise of forgery more generally, beyond that of only literary, in such a way are still rare. Writings about forgeries are plenty in number, but the bulk of them focus on specific cases of forgery or on the life of a particular forger or multiple forgers. The writings on the general history of forgery are far less in number, and books on the history of literary forgery are even fewer.

4 – Recommended Reading

I have compiled a list of 5 recommended books for beginner’s in the field of fakes and forgeries.


[1] – Stephens, Walter, et al. Literary Forgery in Early Modern Europe, 1450–1800. Illustrated, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. Accessed 30 May 2021.

[2] – Jones, Mark, et al. Fake? The Art of Deception. First Edition, University of California Press, 1990.

[3] – Rutz, C., Klump, B., Komarczyk, L. et al. Discovery of species-wide tool use in the Hawaiian crow. Nature 537, 403–407 (2016). Accessed 30 May 2021.

[4] – The ‘Alalā Project. Accessed 30 May 2021.

[5] – Leonard, Pat. Where Did All Those Canada Geese In Town Come From? (17 Sep. 2013). Accessed 14 Jun. 2021.

[6] – D. T. Potts (2016) – review of O. W. Muscarella, Archaeology, artifacts and antiquities of the Ancient Near East (Brill, 2013). Accessed 21 Jun. 2021.

[7] – Mazza, Roberta. The Illegal Papyrus Trade and What Scholars Can Do to Stop It (1 Mar. 2018). Accessed 21 Jun. 2021.

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