Forgeries of Robert Burns

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James Stillie, who maintained The Old Book Establishment at 19 George Street, was suprised one day in the 1880s when a 27 year old clerk brought to him a manuscript version of a poem by Robert Burns, written in the unmistakable hand of the poet himself.

The young clerk was Alexander Howland Smith, who came in time to be known as 'Antique' Smith.

James Stillie had been in business for decades. He had served his apprenticeship at John Ballantyne and company of 6 Hanover Street. Sir Walter Scott had been a partner in this firm, and Stillie had become a collector of Scott manuscripts and letters, and his later life he was an avid collector of Robert Burns artefacts and manuscripts.

Alexander Smith had discovered the Burns manuscript while working as a copy clerk at a law firm, and when he saw how much Stillie was willing to pay for it, he came up with some furtehr copying projects himself.

What happened at this meeting between Stillie and Smith is not clear, but it is likely this first exchange was a genuine one, and that Stillie's Burns manuscript was genuine. However, it is likely that James Stillie said to the young Alexander Howland Smith that he could always use more Burns material, and so one of the greatest literary hoxers of all time popped into being.

A fine example of an 'Antique' Smith forgery of Robert Burns' hand

Alexander Howland Smith was employed as a letter copier for a legal firm, but his talents went for beyond the norm. To aid him in his schemes, the muniment room of his employer was a treasure trove of parchment and old paper. Smith then carefully collected scraps of blank paper from the bundles of old legal documents he worked with, and set to work with gusto.

Robert Burns was Antique Smith's first target and was an easy one because not only were there plenty examples of the poets manuscripts doing the rounds, but the market for Robert Burns material was large.

Not content with raking it in for the production of these false Burns poems and letters however, Smith went on to produce letters and documents from Mary Queen of Scots, Lord Darnley, the Earl of Bothwell and the entire dynasty of Stuart kings, as well as Bonnie Prince Charlie, Flora Macdonald, Oliver Cromwell, Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, the Duke of Wellington and Horatio Nelson. Among many others!

James Stillie was implicated in all of this, because such was Stillie's reputation as a collector and seller of these artefacts, that nobody questioned the authenticity of these finds. Collectors and libraries which made enquiries of his firm soon found that within a week, Stillie had managed to find what they were looking for, and so it went on. It is known that the two men produced thousands of fakes over several years, and with Smith's skills and Stillie's reputation, they were able to do very well for themselves.

The University of Delaware Library for example holds a sixteen-page forgery of Robert Burns’ The Jolly Beggars. The manuscript has with it some documentation attempting to verify its authenticity which includes a dealer’s description by James Stillie, and a certificate from John Maitland stating he received the manuscript from Robert Burns.

James Stillie backs up the forgery of the MS of the Burns cantata 'The Jolly Beggars'

It is certain that other antiquarian booksellers in Edinburgh were involved in this operation, and a very large sale from a chemist called Mackenzie in 1891 drew some attention to the scheme.

It was after this sale of the so-called Rillbank Cresecent Manuscripts (Mackenzie resided at Rillbank Crescent) that the authenticity of some of the pieces was questioned, and the newspapers took up this story, and many hundreds of items were submitted to the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum and found to be fake.

In one case, that of a collector called John S. Kennedy in New York, over 200 items were submitted and found to be forgeries, and in 1892 Antique Smith was arrested on charges of falsehood, fraud and wilful imposition.

After the arrest, the authorities uncovered Smith's den in a wooden shed in some allotments down Leith Walk behind Hope Crescent, and in the den they discovered that he had also been adept at painting. It was found that once the muniment room at the legal office had been exhausted of old-fashioned blank parchment sheets by Smith, he had turned to buying old theological books which he disbound for their blank end-leaves. Smith used his own ink, which had been diluted with water or adulterated with sepia or iron, and he had distressed his documents with a weak solution of tea and her and there with some tobacco juice. Then to dirty his forgeries, Smith would rub them on a damp slate.

Pages from old books are often worm-eaten and Smith welcomed these, although he did make a terrible mistake insofar as he took care to avoid the holes when wriring, and of course one would have expected the actual writing itself to be pitted by worm holes.

Once Out of Prison, 'Antique' Smith Set Up His Own Shop on George Street, Edinburgh

When found guilty, Alexander Howland 'Antique' Smith was sentenced to a year in prison, but after serving his sentence, he opened his own shop at 26 George Street, from where he bought and sold manuscripts based on the knowledege he had picked up during his years as a forger.

How 'Antique' Smith's Shoppie Looks Today

He continued to run the shop through the first decades of the 1900s, and although many have speculated that he could never have worked alone to have made so many forgeries, he always insisted that the scams had been his own work, but there were simple too many antique manuscripts flooding out of Edinburgh for this to be true.

Alexander Antique Smith forgery of Robert Burns.

Other than Stillie however, and Mackenzie, no other person was implicated and Smith's own shop continued to do well until his retirement in the 1920s.