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GSU historian uncovers forgery of prominent Galileo book

Thursday, August 16, 2012 – Jeremy Craig, University Relations

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A Georgia State University assistant professor has extensively examined several copies of books by Galileo, one valued at millions of dollars, and discovered that they were recent forgeries.

They were all supplied by Marino Massimo De Caro, who was arrested earlier this year, accused of stealing thousands of books from the Naples Girolamini Library of which he was director.

Nick Wilding of GSU’s Department of History examined a copy of Sidereus Nuncius, which was first published in 1610 in Venice and contains Galileo’s earliest printed telescopic astronomical observations.

Only 550 copies were published in the seminal first edition, making those copies of the book highly valued among rare book collectors and academics. 

“It is arguably the most important book in the history of science,” Wilding said.

One copy of the Sidereus Nuncius bought by a New York dealer in 2005 and another copy offered by Sotheby’s New York at roughly the same time had inexplicable coincidences; Wilding found that both were actually excellent forgeries based in part on a 1964 Italian reproduction of the book.

The former copy, which has drawings and an inscription apparently by Galileo, was analyzed and authenticated by an international team of high-profile academics, with results published in two volumes in 2011.

The first evidence that the book was a complete forgery, Wilding said, came from examining the title pages of both copies.

“When I looked closely at them together, I realized that they were absolutely identical,” he said. “And they were absolutely identical in ways that were physically impossible if they had been produced using typeface in 1610.”

A blotch on the letter “P” in the word “privilegio” was identical between the copies, and appeared on the copy that is the basis of the 1964 reprint of the book – a blotch not made out of printer’s ink, but from discoloration of the paper, and picked up in the photographs used to make the 1964 replicas.

“It can’t logically be there if it is produced by photography in 1964, and it can’t have been produced identically in print in 1610 on these two copies alone and on no other copy,” Wilding explained.

Other discrepancies existed, including repeated, small details that could not have been reproduced in multiple copies of the first edition, printed with the moveable type of the 17th century.

The forgeries put into question the authenticity of many antiquarian books. 

“This is pretty disturbing for academics, because our entire enterpriser relies on trusting in our primary sources,” Wilding said. “If somebody’s putting out very high quality fakes out there, it puts our enterprise into jeopardy because we no longer know whether what we’re doing is true or not.”

To read an interview of Wilding with The New York Times, click here.