skip to primary navigationskip to content
 

Investigating Fake Scientific Instruments in the Whipple Museum Collection

Since its foundation in 1951 the Department's Whipple Museum has pioneered research into fake scientific instruments. The Museum's second curator, Derek de Solla Price, effectively established this research area when, in 1956, he announced his discovery of the now notorious 'Mensing fakes'. Working out from five fake instruments identified in the Whipple, Price unearthed a large haul of deliberately forged instruments in collections across Europe and North America, all traceable to a single source: the Amsterdam dealership Frederik Muller & Co., under the direction of Anton Mensing (1866–1936).

Since Price's pioneering work the Mensing name has loomed large over scientific instrument collections, with dealers and curators particularly attuned to the problem of identifying suspect objects with an Amsterdam connection. This research project, established in 2014 as a collaboration between an instrument historian, a Whipple Museum curator, and a leading specialist in the instrument trade, seeks to further Price's project by spreading the net wider than Mensing. By looking again critically at a range of instruments with provenances beyond Frederik Muller & Co., we argue that the question of fake scientific instruments has by no means been solved. The market for antique scientific instruments was fairly new and quite volatile in the first half of the twentieth century, and our analysis suggests that several dealers can plausibly be linked to the sale of forgeries, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not.

Our methodology includes both traditional techniques of curatorial analysis – exploring provenance; cross-comparison with other collections; scrutiny of engraving accuracy, palaeographic style, size, and quality of craftsmanship – and metallographic analysis conducted by researcher on early mathematical instruments John Davis. Initial results have recently been published in the Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, and include the identification of several new forgeries and at least one heretofore unexamined dealership with intriguing connections to more suspect aspects of the trade.

People

  • Boris Jardine, Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge
  • Joshua Nall, Curator of Modern Sciences, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge
  • James Hyslop, Head of Department, Scientific Instruments, Globes & Natural History, Christie's, King Street, London

Publications

Boris Jardine, Joshua Nall, and James Hyslop, 'More Than Mensing? Revisiting the Question of Fake Scientific Instruments', Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, No. 132 (March 2017): 22–29.

Preliminary results from the project were presented in the session 'Learning from forgeries', at the XXXIV Scientific Instrument Commission Symposium, Turin, 7–11 September, 2015.