The Sunday Post (Newcastle)

A man might not be a man for a’ that...beware the fake Burns

- By George Mair

Fake Robert Burns manuscript­s, produced by an “affable” forger in Edinburgh 140 years ago, are still being used to make millions of pounds from unsuspecti­ng collectors around the world.

Burns wrote songs and poems right up until his death in 1796. As his reputation continued to grow, the market for his handwritte­n manuscript­s became highly lucrative.

In the 1880s, Edinburgh forger Alexander “Antique” Smith produced hundreds of fake manuscript­s, which he sold to bookseller­s, auctions and collectors.

He was caught and sentenced to 12 months in prison in 1893, but many of his counterfei­ts remain in circulatio­n.

Now, with authentic Burns manuscript­s worth thousands of pounds, scammers are cashing in on the fakes.

Professor Gerard Carruthers, co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at Glasgow University, reveals the scam in BBC Scotland’s David Wilson’s Crime Files: Scams & Scandals, on Tuesday.

Carruthers said Smith’s remarkable counterfei­ts still caused problems for collectors and experts alike.

He said: “I have made three trips abroad this year to look at documents that might, or might not, be genuine. Most recently I’ve been in New England helping a collector who had hoped that his seven-figure investment was genuine Burns but it was almost certainly by ‘Antique’ Smith.

“Even though Smith is collectabl­e in his own right, that seven-figure sum has become at best a four-figure sum.

“He’d been hustled. A guy in Texas

Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. had said to him, ‘You have three days to buy this stuff, I’ve got another man interested’. This was an experience­d collector of autographs and historic bills so he knew the scene, he knew that forgery exists, but he still fell for it.”

Alexander Howland Smith, grew up in Edinburgh’s New Town. In the 1880s, while working as a clerk in an Edinburgh law office, he began visiting secondhand book shops. He bought batches of old books with blank fly leaves to create his counterfei­ts.

From 1886, manuscript­s purportedl­y from some of Scotland’s greatest writers, including Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg and Burns, began to appear in bookshops across the capital.

The supposed documents were snapped up by collectors until 1891, when rumours began to circulate about forgeries and some owners sent their prized purchases for verificati­on.

Smith’s scheme began to unravel and the following year he was found guilty of knowingly selling and pawning his forgeries under false pretences.

He told police how he had been tasked by his employer to dispose of some old documents and, discoverin­g they were valuable, had decided to sell them. When these papers ran out, he began to create forgeries.

He claimed that he could create any kind of document. In court, one shopkeeper described him as “brisk in movement and in manner, affable”.

Carruthers said Smith’s fakes had threatened to “pollute” the records of what Burns did, and did not, write.

He added: “American collectors, more than any other, have desired Robert Burns and that’s where you find the biggest cache of genuine manuscript­s and also fake ones.

“The biggest number of ‘Antique’ Smith manuscript­s were found at the New York Public Library –157 of them.”

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