Glasgow scientists create system for detecting Rabbie Burns’ fakes

The team developed a classification system that accurately distinguishes Burns' real handwriting from the fakes. Picture: TSPL
The team developed a classification system that accurately distinguishes Burns' real handwriting from the fakes. Picture: TSPL
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Scientists have developed a new way to distinguish between real and fake historical documents by focusing on the work of Robert Burns.

Researchers used a technique called direct infusion mass spectrometry to analyse the ink and paper of both authenticated and forged Burns’ manuscripts.

They then developed a classification system that accurately distinguishes Burns’ real handwriting from the fakes.

They tested 12 documents – three real Burns documents from different periods of the bard’s life and nine fakes from the 1890s by notorious forger Alexander Smith.

The technique lifts ink from the paper surface in a way that does not visibly damage the original material and can be done outside the laboratory.

The method will allow the checks to be used on a widespread basis. Researchers also found Burns was mixing an ink made from carbonised ivory, sulphuric acid and stale beer with another ink made with wine to achieve writing lustre and consistency on some documents.

Glasgow University’s Dr Karl Burgess, who worked on the study, said: “Through this technique, we now know some things about Burns that we never knew before.

“However, we’re particularly excited about that fact that we have a new way of providing more evidence for a fake or a real manuscript if one turns up and we have a technique that we can apply to any manuscript to gain more information about it.

“The simplicity of the sample preparation method we used means that the sampling can be easily performed at the site where the manuscripts are stored, which in turn could make it an ideal technique for auction houses to confirm authenticity.

“In future, we’d like to analyse as many historical documents as we can, so that we can begin to build a database of inks and manuscripts.”

University colleague Professor Gerard Carruthers added: “In terms of Robert Burns, there has been a huge historic industry in forgery and fakery and he is not alone in this.

“It is very exciting that we’re creating an authenticity tool that will have wide implications for scholars, libraries, archives, auction houses and collectors.” The study is published in Scientific Reports.

From the moment of Burns’s death in 1796, a hunger to obtain original versions of his works, letters and personal items began.

Smith – a Scottish document forger of the late 19th century whose efforts are now collection items in their own right – is among the most renowned to have faked Burns’ manuscripts.

He was forging documents in Edinburgh by the 1880s and was widely reputed to have given his works an antique appearance by dipping them in weak tea.