Archivists are serious about security. In addition to ensuring that the records in their care are physically preserved for future generations, archivists also ensure that the integrity of these records are preserved.
A serious threat to the integrity of the archives is theft of physical materials, such as a letter written by a famous historical person. Such items can be sold for a lot of money, and might not ever be recovered. When someone steals from the archives, they are erasing a bit of history from the public memory.
A less common, but no less serious, threat to the integrity of the archives is the insertion of false documents into archival files. Instead of erasing history from the public memory, this action creates false memories.
Below is a list of instances where people successfully inserted false documents into archives with links to more information on each case. If you hear of any more cases, please let me know!
Bibliothèque nationale de France: A man named Pierre Plantard created a fictional history for a fraternal organization called the Priory of Sion, then commissioned forged medieval manuscripts to provide corroborating evidence of that fictional history. Plantard also forged and planted several documents, now known as Dossiers Secrets d’Henri Lobineau, in the National Library of France in order to “prove” his royal lineage.
Plantard’s forgeries fooled a lot of people, including, apparently, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Holy Blood, Holy Grail went on to fool author Dan Brown, who used the contents as the background for his bestselling novel, The DaVinci Code. Unfortunately, in the foreword to that novel, Brown claimed that these background elements were factual – a claim that continues to fool many readers today.
- Short article that gives an overview of the hoax & its appearance in The DaVinci Code
- Analysis of the Priory of Scion hoax (with photos!)
- Historical context surrounding Plantard’s actions
The Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Tate Gallery: Forged documents and fraudulently-edited gallery exhibition catalogs were planted in the archives of these institutions to create legitimate-looking chains of custody for forged paintings (in the art world, a painting’s authenticity, and therefore value, is determined by a complete chain of custody from the artist to the present-day owner).
- Article from The New York Times
- Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art
White Collar (Season 1 Episode 1): In the pilot episode of this TV series, a criminal steals the “lone surviving copy” of a 1944 Spanish Victory bond from the National Archives, and replaces it with a counterfeit bond. He does this because he plans to produce many more counterfeit bonds (i.e. find the lost treasure), and knows that his fake bonds will be authenticated by comparing them to the bond that is held in the archives. Because all of the counterfeit bonds will match, they will all be considered authentic and each worth $248,000.
Although the writers of this episode of White Collar used creative license to ignore archival procedures & make such a theft from the National Archives plausible, I love that they used the National Archives to bring new life into a story about counterfeit money. Double points for ensuring that the actors said “archives,” not “archive.”