Great fakes

Fakes, forgeries and fabrications give printers a bad name and the fear of forgery was one of the reasons behind the 1637 Star Chamber Decree designed to prevent “abuses in printing seditious, treasonable and unlicensed books and pamphlets, printing and printing presses”.

State control regulated the number of presses and printers, determined what could, and could not, be produced and was a response to a long-held, ingrained fear that the liberty to print was a threat to society, a challenge to crown and state, and a danger to the Church and public morality. However, the decree failed to stop forgeries. For centuries everything from banknotes to art prints, stamps, medicine labels and passports and even football tickets and t-shirts have been produced surreptitiously either by professional criminals using the latest technology, or amateur crooks using whatever kit they could find.

Forging is a serious offence. In the past counterfeiters were punished with death; today the penalty is less draconian, either a fine or a maximum 10-year prison sentence. But not all counterfeiters are criminals and not all forgeries are illegal. Some of the greatest fakes have been produced with the full support of the authorities and the perpetrators have been rewarded for their services to the nation. The stories of these acceptable forgers form an intriguing part of print’s history.

War-time forgeries

One such forger was Birmingham-based Roy Kilminster, a pioneer of colour masking techniques who worked in V Siviter-Smith’s photolithographic reproduction department. At the outbreak of the second world war Kilminster enlisted with Bomber Command. Shot down over Germany in 1941, he was captured and detained in Stalag Luft 1 where he remained until its liberation in 1945.

Kilminster’s knowledge of printing was put to good use when he became the camp’s chief forger, producing escape papers, identity cards and leave passes, replicating letters authorising travel and printing rail tickets. It was dangerous, painstaking work undertaken at night using rudimentary equipment and improvised materials. Initially all reproduction was done by hand with India ink and a fine sable hairbrush smuggled into the camp from England. As Kilminster was alone in having the requisite skills, forging on a large scale was impossible without the mechanical assistance of a duplicator. Although it gave low-quality results, the duplicator greatly increased output and proved particularly useful in forging typewritten documents, whose 12pt text Kilminster imitated by hand with pen and ink.

The duplicator was short-lived as it was impounded by the Germans. Kilminster, however, retained some of the duplicating ink and discovered cooking jellies—included in Red Cross food parcels—could be used as a duplicator base. But the jellies were soft and difficult to work and attempts to harden them with formalin contained in some medicine tablets were unsuccessful. However, the jelly duplicator effectively imitated the impressions of rubber stamps. Etching with hydrochloric acid and aluminium extracted from kitchen pans coupled with a resist for the design made from boot polish, candle grease, or cellulose paint also gave passable results.

Towards the end of the war, a camera was smuggled into the camp and Kilminster devised several methods of reproducing passes by photography. The first was to photograph the original document at same size and after retouching the negative make the required prints. If the original pass was unsuitable for direct reproduction, then Kilminster re-drew the pass by hand for photographing.

Whilst the necessities of war made an undercover forger out of Kilminster, conflict also made a state-sanctioned counterfeiter out of another British printer.

Prior to 1939, Ellic Howe had been a printer and typographic historian. During the second world war, and working under the pseudonym Armin Hull, Howe became a master counterfeiter responsible for directing Britain’s forgery operations. With an interest in the production of books, Howe often visited Germany where he studied printing techniques and amassed a vast collection of German printed matter such as newspapers, warrant posters, tram tickets and other ephemera.

In 1941, Howe published an article entitled ‘Political warfare and the printed word—a psychological study’. As a result, he was invited to join the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), a government office concerned with psychological warfare. Through his printing contacts, Howe was able to arrange the supply of paper and typographic material for the PWE and to oversee the printing of forged German postcards, supply cards and stamps. He also trained other counterfeiters to produce documents for agents going behind enemy lines.

Howe made all the arrangements for the design and production of PWE forgeries. The Fanfare Press, London printed the general forgeries, but philately fakes were sent to Waterlow & Sons for watermarking and perforating. Spicers supplied the paper and the Monotype Corporation provided type and other materials. By the end of the war, Howe had supplied “everything from a few forged letterheads to several million forged German ration cards”.

Two days after the war ended, Howe was ordered to destroy all his files thereby eradicating an incredible amount of irreplaceable material on wartime forgery. 35 years later, when writing an account of his war time activities, the government refused Howe access to his own archived reports, which were still classified. His account of his wartime work, The Black Game, was, however, eventually published in 1982.

Peace-time forgeries

War certainly tests human ingenuity but sheer greed also brings out the best – and the worst – in the would-be forger, and stamps are a popular choice for imitation.

In 2018, following a rise in the cost of postage stamps the Royal Mail in Scotland was forced to take measures against forgers trying to cash-in by selling first- and second-class stamps for less than half their face-value. The counterfeits came mainly from Turkey and China: the stamps, however, were missing the crucial phosphor bands printed on the genuine article and some were without the date and source codes usually found in the background lettering.

A particularly odd example of philatelic forgery happened earlier this year when newspapers reported the Royal Mail was probing curious fake postage stamps showing Diane Abbott MP as the Queen. The bright red stamps were discovered circulating in Hackney. Whether they were produced as a light-hearted stunt or a political statement is unknown. But whatever the motivation, a criminal offence was committed; the forgers remain at large and their stamps may still be in circulation.

Alongside stamps, football and concert tickets are popular and lucrative targets for both the professional and amateur forger. According to Action Fraud, in the year up to March 2018, ticket counterfeiting amounted to £3,344,835. But some forgers are more adept than others at cashing-in on their crimes.

In 2003 an economics graduate forged hundreds of tickets from his bedroom for Celtic’s Uefa Cup final match in Seville, selling them for just £5 each. When police raided his home, they found computer equipment capable of producing high-quality copies of the tickets along with 291 forged tickets. At his trial the judge was astonished the accused had sold the tickets for such a small amount, saying: “I find it extraordinary that you would go to the extent of purchasing equipment to copy the holograms, paying hundreds of pounds in this enterprise and then sell these tickets, which would take an expert eye to know they were not real tickets, to sell them for a couple of pounds – if that were me I would want to sell for £60!”

It seems economics degrees do little to equip the would-be forger.

Detecting forgeries is all in the detail. When Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister of Pakistan, came under scrutiny for his off-shore dealings it was the typographic minutiae which tripped him up. Thomas Phinney, a typographic expert from Adobe, is often called on in lawsuits to determine documents’ authenticity based on a forensic analysis of the typefaces used and how they have been printed. In Sharif’s case Phinney was able to declare an exculpatory document a forgery because it had been typeset in Calibri, a Microsoft font released 12 months after the document had allegedly been signed and dated! Phinney has been a ‘Type Detective’ since 1999 when he was asked to help determine the validity of a will. In that case, in addition to font discrepancies, Phinney testified that the will, dated 1983, was printed using a high-resolution inkjet printer, the Deskjet, which was not produced until 1988. Detecting fraud via fonts often involves tedious measurements with digital callipers, examinations under microscopes, charts that track the slight differences between two versions of a typeface, or evidence that certain technology post-dated the time of alleged production. Such details may be minuscule but they can topple governments and decide the fate of millions of dollars in lawsuits.

As long as there is money, power, or political gain at stake, the amateur and professional forger will undoubtedly continue to practice their art and forgery detectives will continue to track them down.


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