Skip to main content

Full text of "Two Forged Antiques"

See other formats


Early Journal Content on JSTOR, Free to Anyone in the World 

This article is one of nearly 500,000 scholarly works digitized and made freely available to everyone in 
the world by JSTOR. 

Known as the Early Journal Content, this set of works include research articles, news, letters, and other 
writings published in more than 200 of the oldest leading academic journals. The works date from the 
mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. 

We encourage people to read and share the Early Journal Content openly and to tell others that this 
resource exists. People may post this content online or redistribute in any way for non-commercial 
purposes. 

Read more about Early Journal Content at http://about.istor.org/participate-istor/individuals/early- 
journal-content . 



JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people 
discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching 
platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit 
organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please 
contact support@jstor.org. 



Two Forged Antiques, — By Richabd Gottheil, Pro- 
fessor in Columbia Universityy New York City. 

Archaeological frauds have been multiplying rapidly of late, 
and this country has become a dumping-ground for forgeries 
of many kinds. Not a few modern antiques — aged long before 
their time — have found a resting place in our public and 
private collections. 

It has fallen to my lot to assist in the exposure of several 
such frauds. In 1890 I brought to the attention of this 
Society an Alhambra vase belonging to this category; in 1909, 
a pair of beautiful doors said to have come from the madrasah 
of the Mameluke Sultan Barktik, in Cairo; and in the same 
year, a manuscript of that arch-forger of Arabic History in 
the Island of Sicily, Vella. This last-named forgery is one of 
the two described in the following pages. 

A. A Remarkable Gold Amulet. 

During the last five or six years a certain number of amu- 
lets made of gold or silver foil have come to light, covered for 
the most part with Hebrew inscriptions. With the exception 
of one or two, these amulets are now in the possession of the 
New York Public Library. They are said to have been found 
in graves excavated at Irbid in the Hauran; a statement 
which rests entirely upon the good faith (Grod save the mark!) 
of the dealers themselves. At the last meeting of this society, 
Professor Montgomery favored us with a translation of two 
of these amulets. Since then, one further copy has been 
brought to this country, which raises the number of these ob- 
jects in the New York Public Library to six. It is with the 
sixth that the present paper has to do. 

In size and general appearance, it is easily recognized as 
belonging to the same class as the other amulets, though it is 
the first of the larger size to be presented in gold. As an ord- 



Yol. xxxiii,] Two Forged Antiques. 307 

inary amulet, it would not especially arouse our interest; but 
when we come to examine the writing upon it, our curiosity 
is engaged. The surface is divided into two fields, which are 
evidently quite distinct one from the other. The first field 
contains writing evidently .meant to be either Phoenician or 
old Aramaic — a strange circumstance in itself, as the previous 
finds seem to point to a community of Jews living in Irbid 
during the first centuries of our era, when the Aramaic script 
had long given way to the so-called square characters. This 
circumstance, however, might pass; it would only make it 
necessary that we revise our dates in connection with this 
community. But the Aramaic inscription contains nothing 
but variations of portions of the ordinary Semitic alphabet, 
first in its regular and secondly in its reverse order; the so- 
called abgad, and its complement the tashrak. Even so, we 
might hesitate to declare ourselves doubters, when we re- 
member the many uses made of the alphabet by mystics of 
early times and down through the Middle Ages; or, again, 
our amulet-maker might have belonged to the class of simple- 
minded and Grod-fearing men, like the monk in the story of 
Luther, who told merely the alphabet on their beads, pre- 
fering that Grod himself should put the letters into words 
pleasing in His sight. Yet, we are led to doubt the simplicity 
of the simple-minded man in our own case, for he has mixed 
up Phoenician or Aramaic letters of various epochs and has 
used some which belong to no epoch at all. Finally, at the 
end of the first two fields, he has added a line of letters that 
to all intents and purposes are Samaritan in character. 

The examination of the second field confirms us as doubters. 
The Aramaic inscription in equivocal characters to which is 
attached aline of Samaritan is bad enough; but when to this 
is joined an old Babylonian inscription, the climax is certainly 
reached. For the Babylonian inscription is an old acquaint- 
ance found on a mace head of Sargon of Agade, whose name 
and title it gives, i 

This much, at least, can be said: the forger of the amulet 
was a man of no ordinary talent. He certainly had imagin- 



1 Shar ganni | Shar ali | Shar A-ga-de ^^ \ a-na [ ilu Shamash | in iiw Ud- 
Kib- I nun ki (s=Sippar). See, e. g. Ball, Light from the East, p. 52 j Radau 
p. 161, note. 



308 Richard Qottheih [1913. 

ation, and a sense of historical proportion, if historical im- 
portance is measured by bigness. He has roamed at will over 
a space of some three or four thousand years; but we should 
be thankful to him for this, for it has enabled us the more 
easily to follow his somewhat tortuous footsteps. 

B. The "Kitab Diwan Misr". 

Authentic documents from the early centuries of Moham- 
medan dominion are of rare occurrence, and therefore are 
highly prized. It is only of late that the finds of Egyptian 
papyri have begun to yield of their fulness something in the 
service of Mohammedan studies. The hand of time and the 
negligence of man have ruthlessly destroyed the mass of re- 
cords that must have existed in the chancelleries of the various 
Moslem empires, I was accordingly much surprised and de- 
lighted when, in 1908, ^ I was shown a manuscript (said to 
have been brought to this country by an Italian sailor) bear- 
ing the title "Book of the Diwan of Egypt".2 The volume 
had all the outward marks of great age; even the bookworm 
had left many traces on the pages. The edges of the codex 
had been frayed, and each page was set in paper that was 
very evidently of much later ds^te than the original. My inter- 
est was deepened still further by the deciphering of the open- 
ing paragraph. The manuscript contained nothing less than 
a copy of the letters which had come to the Egyptian Caliph 
Al-Mustansir Billah (1035—1094) from Arab rulers in Sicily 
and Tunis, and the answers of the Caliph to them; and the 
copy — it was asserted — had been made at the instance of the 
Caliph himself in the year of the Hejira 467. Here, indeed, 
was a find of considerable importance; for the reign of Al- 
Mustansir was long and important. 

I had hardly gotten as far as this, when doubts began to 
be raised in my mind. How did the scribes of al-Mustansir 
come to write in a well-defined Maghrebi script? True, it was 
not the intertwisted and entangled script in which later 
Maghrebis delight; but it bore all the hall-marks of this extra- 
ordinary development of Arabic writing. The manuscript 

1 The account of this forgery was read at a meeting of this Society 
in the spring of 1909. 

2 -*a^ C^^^.*^ W-->^* 



Vol. xxxiii.] Two Forged Antiques. 309 

might indeed "be a later copy of an earlier original. But, if 
the script was intertwisted tod entangled, what adjectives 
were fit to qualify the language it expressed? None that I 
could find. It was quite evidently Arabic — or was intended 
to be — but it was the most impossible Arabic that I had ever 
seen. Very soon certain peculiarities which were easily re- 
cognized as Maltese and Tunisian came to view, but most of 
the sentences could not be construed even upon the very 
liberal basis laid down by Arab grammarians. Through some 
of them shimmered an Italian construction or an Italian word 
composition. This was too much even for a willing believer. 
And the doubt once aroused very quickly entrained others. 
The thin brown paper was entirely foreign to Arabic manu- 
scripts; the artistic design of the frontispiece was as un- 
Oriental and as un- Arabic as it could be. But enough! The 
story is as follows: 

In the year 1782, there was in Palermo a certain Giuseppe 
Yella, a Maltese by birth, a member of the Jerusalem order 
and afterwards Abbot of St. Pancrace. At the time he was 
Chaplain at the Abbey of St. Martin, three leagues distant 
from Palermo. As a Maltese, he was naturally familiar with 
the local Arabic dialect of his birth-place; but he was ignorant 
of literary Arabic as well as of Mohammedan history. There 
happened to be four or five Arabic manuscripts in the library 
of St. Martin's, and when a certain Mohammed ibn Uthman 
came in 1782 as ambassador of Morocco to the court of 
Naples, he visited St. Martin's near Palermo. Whether 
because Mohammed ibn Uthman and Yella could in a measure 
understand each other's speech, or not, the two formed an 
acquaintance that was destined to be productive of much evil 
for students of Arabic. For hardly had the Moroccan del- 
egate left when Vella announced the discovery in St. Martin's 
of a valuable Arabic manuscript giving the history of the 
Arabs in the Island of Sicily. A few years later (1786), hav- 
ing kept up by correspondence his connection with the Mor- 
occan delegate, he noised abroad the receipt of another im- 
portant manuscript found at Fez, containing the correspondence 
between the Norman princes, Count Eoger and Duke Eobert 
Gruiscard, and the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir in Egypt. 
King Ferdinand of Sicily became deeply interested in these 
discoveries, and even went so far as to send Yella and three 



310 Richard OottJieil [1913. 

students to Fez upon a mission of enquiry for other manu- 
scripts dealing with the same subject. Patriotic Sicilians joined 
their king. Among these was Monseignor Airoldi, Archbishop 
of Heraclea, Judge of the Apostolic Legation and of the 
Monarchy of Sicily, who paid all the expenses connected with 
the publication of the volumes and even had Arabic type sent 
especially from Parma for the purpose. Six volumes of this 
history appeared between the years 1789 and 1792,^ Vella 
hiding his own personality behind that of a suppositious 
Mustafa ibn Hani. Airoldi had even commenced the pub- 
lication of these texts in Latin and Italian, in 1788 (48 pp.). 2 
Writers on the history of Sicily generally accepted the manu- 
script as genuine, and Wahl, Rossi, Ferrara, Piazzi, etc. made 
use of it in their works. Even so good a scholar as Olaus 
Gerard Tychsen at Rostock was caught in the trap of the 
wily Maltese, and republished a small portion in his '^Element- 
ale arabiciiw!^ (Rostock, 1792), and a professor in Stuttgart, 
P. W. G. Hausleutner, translated the first four volumes into 
German under the title '^ Oeschichte der Araber in Sicilien^^ '■^ 
(1791 — 92). The Pope even lent his consideration to the fraud 
by a profuse letter of thanks, dated 1790. But there were 
not wanting conscientious students who quickly saw through 
the very evident fraud. Joseph Hager was called to Palermo 
in 1794 by the king himself; and in 1796 Monseignor Adami, 
Bishop of Aleppo, who was on his way from Rome to his 
own diocese, was bidden to Sicily to examine the precious 
manuscript. Both men pronounced the manuscript a stupid 
forgery, 4 the latter even writing a treatise in German which 



1 Mustafa ibn Hani, Codice diplomatico di Sicilia sotto il governo degli 
Arabia puhlicato per opere e studio di A. Airoldi. Palermo, 1789 — 1792. 
See Catalogue of the Printed Books in the British Museum; Graesse, 
Tresor de livres rares et precieux, 1867, VI, 274; I, 48. Cfr. Amari, Storia 
del Musselmani in Sicilia I, p. XI. 

2 Codex diplomaticus Siciliae sub Saracenorum imperio ab anno 827 
ad 1072; nunc primum ex Mss. Mauro-occidentalibus depromptus cura et 
studio A. Airoldi. Panormi 1788 (pp. 1 — 48). 

3 Geschichte der Araber in Sicilien und Siciliens unter der Herrschaft 
der Araber. In gleichzeitigen TJrkunden von diesem Yolk selbst. Aus dem 
Italidnischen. Mit Anmerhungen und Zusdtzen. A vols. Konigsberg 1791—92. 

4 The report of Adami is published, together with a letter by the 
Chevalier d'ltalinsky, in von Hammer's Fundgruben des Orients, vol. 1 
(1809), pp. 236 sq. 



Vol.xxxiii.] Two Forged Antiques. 311 

was afterwards published in a French translation. * In the 
meanwhile Yella had gone ahead with the printing of his 
second manuscript containing the correspondence between the 
Norman princes and the Egyptian Caliph. This was under- 
taken by the king himself and gotten out in two editions — 
one folio and one quarto — in regal style, the Arabic text side 
by side with the translation. 2 In this edition Guiseppe Yella's 
name is mentioned as translator with the ornate title, "Cap- 
pelano del sac. or dine Gerosolimitano, Abate di Sant. Pan- 
cragio. Prof, di lingua araba nella reale academia di Palermo 
e socio nazionale della reale academia della scienze". The first 
volume, containing no less than 370 pp., appeared in 1793 
and the second was in the press whfen the bubble burst. Yella 
was arrested and tried before three different tribunals and 
condemned. But it is evident either that the authorities did 
not consider the crime to be a serious one, or that strong in- 
fluence was exerted in his behalf. He was condemned simply 
to seclusion in a small villa at Mozzo Monreale, a suburb of 
Palermo. 

In such manner was finished the first act of the drama; 
and it would seem that with the final condemnation of Yella 
the whole matter could be relegated to the lumber-room or 
finally classed among the rather numerous forgeries which 
have been committed at the expense of the Orient. But after 
the lapse of more than one hundred years, the forgeries of 
Yella received a new lease of life; and in order that this lease 
of life may be cut short, or at least not transferred to these 
shores, I ask the attention of the Society for a few moments 
longer. About the year 1905 a certain Yarvaro read a paper 
before the "Societa Siciliana per la Storia Patria" in Palermo 
— but which does not appear in its publications — in which he 
tried to establish the thesis that Yella had not entirely fal- 
sified the manuscripts that he brought forward, but that he 

1 I have not been able to see the German original. The title of the 
Friench translation is: Relation d^une insigne Imposture Litteraire de- 
Gouverte dans un Voyage fait en Sicile en 1794. Par Mr. le Dr. Hager. 
Traduit de TAllemand, Erlangen 1799. 

2 y^i^^ O^^.^ i^iX^ Libro del consiglio de Egitto etc. Palermo, Real e 
Stamperia, 179B. Ofr. Zenker, Bihliotheca Orientalis, I, p. 94. A portion 
of this was republished in 1794 by the secretary of the Palermo Academy 
"del Bon Gusto*' for use in one of the seminaries. 



312 Richard Gottheil, Two Forged Antiqties. [1913. 

had based them upon authentic documents of great Talue 
which were in his possession, and that Vella's manuscripts 
might still be of great service in studying the history of 
Sicily in its relations with various Mohammedan states. The 
manuscripts to which he referred were not the two sequestered 
at the time of the arrest of Yella, for these are still, I am 
reliably informed, in the Archivio di Stato at Palermo. It 
seems that after Vella had been relegated to the villa in 
Mozzo Monreale he continued to write Arabic manuscripts. 
These formed parts of Vella^s effects which passed on to his 
family and were preserved instead of being destroyed. The 
Varvaros are distantly related to the Yella family, and in 
course of time have become possessed of the books which 
(being entirely ignorant of Arabic) they consider to be of great 
value, and which they now desire to sell. At the meeting 
referred to, Varvaro brought wdth him one of the manuscripts. 
Professor Carlo A. Nallino, an eminent Arabic scholar, form- 
erly of Naples but now connected with the University^ of 
Palermo, recognized immediately that it was not a genuine 
work, and later in the house of the Varvaros he saw two or 
three more of the. manuscripts, one of which was the Kitab 
Diwan Misr. 

It is this last volume, evidently a copy of the original 
corpus delicti, which has at length been sold, and has found 
its way (together with sundry other Italian things) to this 
country, in the hope that it may be sold here to some cre- 
dulous American. Its sole value is a mournful one, and it 
belongs, by all right, in a Museum of Criminology. 

In conclusion, I ought to say that I am indebted to Pro- 
fessor Nallino for the information contained in the second 
part of this paper, i 

1 Note, 4/8/13. In his translation of al-Sairafl's description of the 
Egyptian "Foreign Office" at the time of the Fatimides, M. Henri Masse 
has been led astray by the title, and has classified the ''Kitab Diwan 
Misr" among the "recneils de modeles epistolaires a Fusage de la Ohan- 
cellerie"! See his Ibn al-Qairafl: Code de la Chancellerie d^Egypte; Ex- 
trait du Bulletin de VInstitut Frangais d^archeologie Orientale, Tome XI, 
Le Oaire, 1913, p. 67.