Fake artifacts acquire real meaning

counterfeitauthenticmagn_158687Since beginning my internship at the Chicago History Museum I have had many interesting and informational discussions with my supervisor, the chief historian and executive vice president. One of the most memorable conversations we had took place during a tour of the museum’s collection areas. Russell was showing myself and some new staff members interesting items CHM has in it’s collection. Such as Lincoln’s moccasins, display dolls from Marshall Field’s windows, and the skin from the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. The provenance on that last artifact is tenuous at best.

The skin was purchased by Charles Gunther in France for his museum in Chicago. Eventually CHM purchased Gunther’s collection, including the snake skin. According to a herpetologist at the Field Museum the skin appears to be from an anaconda or python. It’s mounted on a plaque with hieroglyphic markings, which after consultation with a calligrapher, were determined to be gibberish.

As it happens CHM has a few possible “fake” artifacts in their collection, including a possible fake of the wooden gun that John Dillinger used to break out of jail and supposedly preserved tea from the Boston Tea Party. Russell said he enjoys having these “fake” artifacts in the collection because they not only make for good stories, but they reveal more about the past than the existence of swindlers. These “fake” artifacts illustrate the objects that people thought held great value, monetarily and historically. Most of the supposed replicas or fakes are so old and their histories so intertwined with Chicago’s that they have acquired value in their own right. Even the fakes have meaning to them now.

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