Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sotheby's (To) Auction Hoax

Sotheby's is to auction off this famous hoax photo on July 17th, in London:

"Elsie was playing with the gnome and beckoning it to come on to her knee. The gnome leapt up just as Frances, who had the camera, snapped the shutter. He is described as wearing black tights, a reddish jersey and a pointed bright red cap. Elsie said there was no perceptible weight, though when on the bare hand the feeling is like a 'little breath'. The wings were more moth-like than the fairies and of a soft neutral tint. Elsie explained that what seem to be markings on his wings are simply his pipes, which he was swinging in his grotesque little left hand." (Edward Gardner, Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel, 1945)

This is one of five "Cottingley Fairy" photographs taken by Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Griffiths which together comprise, the most famous hoax of its kind every perpetrated in the history of photography, and one which deceived a number of eminent public figures, most infamously, the writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

From the catalog note:

From July 1917 onwards, in the small village of Cottingley, near Bingley in Yorkshire, the fifteen-year old Elsie Wright and her ten-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths produced a series of photographs (some taken as late as August 1920) showing fairies and gnomes in rural settings, mostly in company with one or other of the girls themselbves. Originally conceived as a joke, the group came to be taken seriously through a series of accidents three years later. The theosophist Edward L. Gardner, who was interested in the paranormal, came to hear of them, as did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who subsequently wrote extensively about them in Strand Magazine (December 1920 and March 1921) and in his full-length book The Coming of the Fairies (1922: see Sotheby's sale 15/16 July 1998, lot 448, for a copy inscribed by Doyle to Frances Griffiths). Despite attracting ridicule from sceptics in the huge publicity which ensued, Doyle, Gardner and others involved believed implicitly in the genuineness of the photographs, which they believed bore witness to protoplasmic thought forms emanating from the girls psychic auras. Doyle's credulity and reputation ensured that the story--which has been the subject of numerous articles, books, television programmes, and films, including Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997)--remained well known from 1920 onwards.

The mystery was not properly solved, nor the hoax fully explained from a technical point of view, until an extensive investigation by Geoffrey Crawley was published between December 1982 and April 1983 in The British Journal of Photography. This finally prompted public confessions from the unrepentant perpetrators themselves, who explained how they had produced coloured cut-out drawings which were mounted with the help of hatpins, and then used super-imposition techniques. However, Frances Griffiths maintained until the end of her life in 1986 that one of the photographs was not produced by trickery, but showed genuine fairies.

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