Arts·Q&A

Massive haul of ancient art forgeries discovered in Saskatchewan! Would you believe it?

Uh...you really shouldn't. But you can still visit The Library of Mr. Prud'homme. This collection of fictional fakes was created by Canadian authors and artists.

Uh...you really shouldn't. This collection of fictional fakes was created by authors and artists

Swindle's a swindle. One of the fabricated fakes appearing in Make Believe: The Secret Library of Mr. Prud'homme. (Courtesy of the Prud'homme Library)

For nearly a century, a strange and eclectic collection of artifacts has been hidden from public view, and while the exact origins remain a puzzle, its recorded history begins in Depression-era Saskatchewan.

It's there, in Prince Albert, that the local bishop, Msgr. Joseph Henri Prud'homme, opened his door to discover a mysterious package. The crate bore no return address, no letter, no coded message — no clue as to how, exactly, it got there. But Prud'homme decided to accept the unexpected delivery, and indeed, he kept it safe until his death three decades later when the gift was bequeathed to a circle of friends — folks who, like the bishop, appreciated its bizarre provenance.

Because the box contained an assortment of cultural curiosities: antiquities from Rome and China, artwork, scientific notebooks. And every last item was a fake!

A fraud!

Flim effing flam!

And actually...

The same goes for that whole story.

But it's a yarn that serves a purpose, and it was dreamed up by Claire Battershill and Heather Jessup, authors/academics who've curated a travelling art exhibition hinging on that tale.

Make Believe: The Secret Library of Mr. Prud'homme appears at the Vancouver Public Library's Main Branch to Aug. 20, following stops in Toronto and Saskatoon and Halifax. And what you'll find there imagines what this fictional collection would have been: a series of unusual forgeries and the intriguing accounts of their origins.

To pull off their hoax of hoaxes, the duo first recruited roughly 40 artists and writers from around the country. Most of the exhibit's historical fakes (or is it fakes of fakes?) began as stories dreamed up by a team of authors. Artists then produced artifacts to match these tall tales — though there are a few exceptions to the rule. (A supposed medieval thermometer began as a found object, and the exhibit also includes a couple of previously existing artworks by Evan Lee and Yana Kehrlein.)

Adding to the mystery, nobody's signed their name to anything, making the whole experience double as a sort of "roman à clef game," as Battershill puts it, and — for those outside of Vancouver — the entire Prud'homme Library can also be viewed through a digital catalogue. Unmistakably academic in its navigational style and language, it was designed, says Battershill, to be as "authentically museum-y" as possible. (Their web designer even invented a fake software company for the project  — "Curator Pro" — and according to Jessup, the site's riddled with similar Easter eggs.)

Even more curious, Prud'homme was a living, breathing bishop from Prince Albert, and his descendants gave the curators their blessing. A selection of their old family photos and Prud'homme's authentic personal effects are still being prepared for the Vancouver exhibition.

But why do any of this? Why apply for a Canada Council for the Arts New Chapter grant, then devote three years to organizing a cross-country collaboration between roughly 120 people — writers and artists and librarians and translators and 3D printing experts and everyone else who had a hand in the faux swindle?

If there's one good thing about hoaxes, it's that once we're fooled, we're forced to stop and think. Why did we fall for that? What details did we miss? And what made us want (so very, very badly) to believe?

They're opportunities to reflect, a little more critically, on the stories we implicitly hold to be true — and that includes chapters of Canadian history, even those as obscure as the tale of a Saskatchewan clergyman's personal shrine to fraud.

Here, Battershill and Jessup reveal how and why they pulled it off.

So how do you go about building a library of fake fakes? What's the process?

Heather Jessup: Originally, I had sent out a writing prompt to some friends because I was thinking of incorporating some creative writing into my academic work.

[Note: Jessup's doctoral dissertation focused on hoaxes in Canadian art and literature. She's set to release a book on the subject later this year.]

"If you were to find a fake object in a library of fakes, what would the object be and why would someone have faked it?" And the pieces I got back were just remarkable. And they were from writers all over Canada.

Claire was originally one of the writers. Her piece is no longer in the exhibit because she's now a curator.

Claire Battershill: The [responses] you had gotten back were amazing, but there was this question of, "Should these be a book?" But then, they're talking about objects. I was kind of thinking like, "What if they actually existed? What if we had artists actually do the exhibition?"

HJ: I had [written] pieces from Michael Winter, Sarah Selecky, Johanna Skibsrud, Claire — a bunch of others. And they were beautiful pieces and I didn't want them to go to waste.

CB: They were also a totally mixed bag. So what happened three years ago is we were like, "OK, how do we make this into a narrative that would work for an exhibition?" So that's where the Prud'homme story came in to frame the whole collection — because they're very eclectic, these fakes. There's an ancient Chinese vase, there's some websites, there's everything in between.

Exhibition view of Make Believe: The Secret Library of M. Prud'homme. (Photo: Meghan Tansey Whitton/Courtesy of the Prud'homme Library)

Why did they fake it: why was that an important question to ask?

HJ: I think the question most people have about fakes generally is the motivation. Why? I think in life we want people to be mostly straightforward and truthful to us, so what is the motivation for faking something? And what's been really interesting to Claire and I [is that] out of all the writers, every single writer and artist we gave this prompt to, none of them chose monetary gain [as a motivation], which is kind of fascinating.

Most of our artists and writers ended up actually writing stories that were more about narratives of inclusion and exclusion, or barriers that people were encountering in their fields or their passions that hindered them from taking a next step, or being recognized for their work or their role in their particular part of society.

It makes for a great story, but is that make believe? Heather, you study hoaxes. In your research, is that indeed what motivates a lot of forgeries?

HJ: I think it really depends on each individual work of art or writing, to be honest. Definitely the idea of being excluded from something is 100 per cent a part of why people forge something, I think. They haven't been recognized by an art community, they haven't been accepted by a literary community, they haven't achieved the fame that they want. Some of the Canadian hoaxes I study, I would classify that way. [They're] seeking fame, but also sometimes it's an artistic wall people have found themselves in.

If you were to find a fake object in a library of fakes, what would the object be and why would someone have faked it?- Heather Jessup, co-curator of Make Believe: The Secret Library of Mr. Prud'homme

Prud'homme was a real person. Why did you want to include someone who actually existed in this whole fiction?

CB: Well, it kind of happened by accident [laughs]. So Heather had made up the name Prud'homme Library. It's a common name in France, a relatively common name, and I can't remember how I ended up down this rabbit hole, but I was researching Prud'hommes when I discovered the bishop. We were sitting in my living room reading about this guy and he sounded amazing. He had travelled a ton, and he knew all these languages and he just seemed like a very curious character.

We found this story and we were thinking, in a strange coincidental way, this is the kind of guy who would have a whole bunch of fakes, and this is the sort of man who would be interested in the academic question of why art is forged and so on.

It doesn't seem like you're actually trying to dupe visitors, so what do you hope people take away from the exhibition?

HJ: We really hope people have fun. You know, there's a dress-up box and probably 200 crayons out on the floor right now. So much fun is part of the exhibit.

I think fun is a part of it, but I think it maybe has a more serious message attached to it, which is that I think we need to poke fun at our hallowed institutions occasionally to understand that they're not the only way of thinking about truth — that a people's truth, a reader's truth, a viewer's truth is also an extremely important part of making a piece of art or telling history.

CB: To circle back to some of the fakers' motivations that we were talking about before, Heather and I's motivation is similar in some ways. This unstuck us a little bit — from being writers on our own, working on novels. This kind of started to get us to think about creativity in a different way and how we could make something in all these different mediums and involve all these people in our process. It's so much more messier and complicated.

HJ: And so much more fun!

A selection of the Prud'homme Library's treasures:        

Swindle. 1917-1930. "A faked version of a 1917 modernist magazine including poetry, prose, and art, unified by a focus on the game of chess." (Courtesy of the Prud'homme Library)
The Book of Love and Chivalry. 1948-1963. "Basket containing miscellaneous items, including a hand-written and illustrated manuscript with missing chapters." (Courtesy of the Prud'homme Library)
Page from A Further History of Uncommon Birds. 1855-1889. "A Further History of Uncommon Birds, most of which have not been figur’d or describ’d, and others very little known from obscure or too brief descriptions without figures, or figures very ill designed. Illustrated ornithological manuscript. 32 pages. Contains paired illustrations and text descriptions on facing pages of 18 birds, as well as three unaccompanied illustrations." (Courtesy of the Prud'homme Library)
Täydellinen Laula. 1945-1984. "A scrap of sheet music containing a single, undecipherable note contained within a button jar and a sound recording of a radio interview with Mackintosh Quain." (Courtesy of The Prud'homme Library)
Beaded Sacred Heart. 1873. "Oil painting and beadwork depicting a red burning heart encircled by a crown of thorns against a light blue background and vermillion border." (Courtesy of The Prud'homme Library)
Selection from Collected Objects Belonging to Bird Biologist, Cleo Petros. 2011. Various items collected in a wooden box, including: a piece of canvas, an Auk skin, a dream journal and scrapbook and miscellaneous clippings of types of birds. (Courtesy of the Prud'homme Library)
Selection from The Self-Portraits of Florence Baldisseri. 1958-1982. "A collection of self-portraits in various media created daily by the artist." (Courtesy of The Prud'homme Library)

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Make Believe: The Secret Library of Mr. Prud'homme. To Aug. 20 at the Vancouver Public Library's Main Branch. www.vpl.ca

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.