Two Fake Antiquities, known as ‘Billy and Charleys’, circa 1860.

These trinkets, a ring and a Pilgrim badge, are examples of one of the largest frauds in the field of antique collecting. Around 1850, two young Londoners, one named Billy, the other Charley, earned money by selling interesting objects that they salvaged from the Thames mud at low tide to an antique dealer. In 1857 they decided that it would be easier, and more profitable, to simply produce counterfeit items purporting to be from the 11th Century. They made crude moulds and cast hundreds of fake medallions and other objects from lead alloy or pewter, dipping them into acid to simulate ageing.

Amazingly, the trade and many collectors believed these objects to be genuine, although, as both boys were illiterate, the letters upon them were nonsense and the numbers were in Arabic numerals, which did not come into use in Europe until the 15th Century. The truth eventually emerged, leaving many eminent antiquarians with red faces! Neither of the forgers was prosecuted; Charley died of consumption aged 35, Billy’s fate is unknown.

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