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Did You Know? 25 Tidbits from Vintage Cigarette Cards

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Back before rigid cardboard containers, cigarettes were only sold in soft packs. Distributors needed something to keep the packs from bending, so cards were added as stiffeners. W.D.& H.O.Wills started a trend of adding simple illustrations in the late 1880s, thus transforming the cards into collectables. The cards featured pictures of anything from animals to celebrities and they often came with tidbits or facts on the opposite side.

A popular series called “Did you know?” posed intriguing questions and answered them on the back of the card (they were like old fashioned Big Questions). The language is a little awkward and prone to run-on sentences, but the content is interesting and informative. 

Cigarette card production ceased at the beginning of WWII to conserve paper, but thanks to cartophily—the hobby of collecting cards—a good portion have been preserved. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, we can enjoy the delightful illustrations and educational tidbits, without the health hazards of smoking.

1. Do you know why the horse straightens its fore-legs first when rising, and the cow its hind-legs?

The wild ancestors of the horse used to roam the open grassy plains of Europe in vast herds. While resting among the tall grass, they would rise on their fore-legs at the first sign of danger and keep a sharp look-out. The Aurochs, or wild oxen, from which our domestic cows are descended, were creatures of the woods, surviving in the Black Forest down to Roman times. When danger threatened, they would rise on their hand-legs, their heads remaining low in order to watch under the trees for any approaching enemy.

2. Do you know how our national flag was formed?

In 1603, England and Scotland were united under James I., and the first Union flag, a combination of the Red Cross of St. George and the white St. Andrew’s Cross of Scotland, was adopted in 1606. Probably the name “Jack” arose through James I. always signing himself Jacques, and was given to the staff on which the flag was hoisted. The flag is only a “Jack” when flown on the jackstaff of a ship of war. In 1801, upon the union with Ireland, the Cross, or Saltire, of St. Patrick was incorporated. The length of the flag should be double its width, the St. George’s Cross with its white border should be 1/3 the total width.

3. Do you know who built the pyramids, and why?

The Pyramids at Gizeh, near Cairo, are really tombs built by Egyptian kings of the 4th Dynasty. The Great Pyramid was built by Khufu, or Cheops, about 4,700 B.C. (Flinders Petrie), the second Pyramid by Khafra, and the third by Menkaura. Close by are several lesser pyramids which are tombs of other royal personages. Each pyramid is a solid mass of masonry, built up of horizontal layers of stone on a foundation of rock, and containing at its centre one or more tomb-chambers entered by long galleries. The base of the Great Pyramid is over 755 feet, and its height about 481 feet, 150 feet higher than St. Paul’s.

4. Do you know how the sand comes on the sea-shore?

Sand consists almost entirely of crystalline particles of quartz mixed with little fragments of shells. When granite and other rocks are broken up by the weather, many of their constituents are washed away into the soil as food for plants; while clay and quartz remain, and are carried to the sea by the streams and rivers. Round the coasts wind and sea are constantly breaking up the cliffs into shingle, sand, and mud. The grains of sand, being much larger and heavier than the fine particles of clay, settle near the sea-shore, while the finer clay is carried far out to sea.

5. Do you know how the spectroscope acts?

Falling raindrops sometimes break up the light of the sun into coloured beams, and form a rainbow, or natural spectrum. A glass prism possesses this property in greater degree, and this has been utilized in the spectroscope, which is an instrument for studying the spectrum. The picture shows the prism (A) clamped upon a table. On the left is a tube (B) carrying a lens, and provided with a slit through which light is admitted, and on the right is a telescope (C). The “solar spectrum,” or band of coloured light into which sunlight is broken up, is shown in the upper illustration. The dark lines are known as Fraunhofer’s lines.

6. Do you know why shells vary in shape?

Our picture shows four typical shell-shapes; two being shells in one piece, or Univalves, and the other two Bivalves. The sea-ear, periwinkle, limpet,&c., are all found on rocks in shallow water, exposed constantly to the beating of the waves. Their shells are therefore strong, and free from projections which would catch the water and cause them to be swept away. The wedge-like shape of the common mussel has been brought about by its habit of associating in tightly packed masses. The beautiful shell of the scallop has hollow ribs, which make it strong, but light, and adopted for rapid movement through the water.

7. Do you know why the stamp is stuck at the top right-hand corner of the envelope?

When Queen Victoria came to the throne letter-writing was an expensive luxury, and postal rates varied considerably, the charge for a letter being sometimes as high as one and eight-pence. On January 10th, 1840, uniform penny postage came into operation, largely owing to the efforts of Mr. (afterwards Sir) Rowland Hill. The following May “adhesive duty labels,” or postage stamps, were introduced. Originally all stamps were cancelled by hand, and as millions of letters had to be handled, it was necessary to have them stamped in the most convenient place, i.e. the top right-hand corner.

8. Do you know what a tidal wave is?

The term “Tidal Wave” is popularly applied to the enormous waves which follow an earthquake occurring near the sea-coast, as is frequently the case. Disturbances take place in the sea-floor, and occasionally great landslips occur beneath the ocean, with the result that the water is violently agitated for many hours. At first the sea retires a long distance, then returns in a vast tidal wave, or series of waves, overwhelming everything within reach. After the Messina Earthquake of 1908, tidal waves 35 feet high were observed, and waves of over 200 feet in height are said to have been recorded off the South American coast.

9. Do you know what the x-rays are?

Towards the end of the 19th century Sir W. Crookes devised the “Crookes Tube,” a glass vessel exhausted of air, and somewhat like an electric bulb lamp, but with two platinum wires sealed into its walls. When a current from an induction coil is passed through the tube, a beautiful phosphorescent light is seen, and invisible radiations (“X-rays”) are given out which possess the remarkable power of penetrating substances opaque to ordinary light. On the left is shown an X-ray tube in use, and on the right a Sciagram, or “photograph” of the hand, taken after a few seconds’ exposure to the rays.

10. Do you know which animals live longest?

The giant land-tortoises of the Island of the Indian Ocean, and of the Galapagos Islands, off S. America, are considered to be the longest lived of all animals. Their chief rivals are the elephants, but exact information as to the age of such animals is difficult to obtain, and naturalists usually regard the land-tortoise as the Methusaleh of the animal kingdom. One of these venerable creatures, brought to England from the Island of Mauritius in 1897, was known to be at least 200 years old, weighed five cwt.

11. Do you know why an apple turns brown when cut?

This change in colour occurs with many varieties of fruit and vegetables, and also with some kinds of meat. The juice of apples and pears contains many chemicals, among them being one which turns brown when acted upon by ferments or enzymes present in the juice, as soon as the interior of the fruit is exposed to the air. Heat kills these enzymes altogether, hence boiled apples never turn brown. On the other hand the iron in a steel knife appears to encourage them, and an apple cut with such a knife turns brown very quickly. Chemists tell us that the richly coloured compounds of iron are largely responsible for the varied colours of plants and animals.

12. Do you know what amber is?

Amber, which is found in large quantities on the shores of the Baltic and the North Sea, is the fossilized resin of species of pine tree. Beautifully preserved mosses, as well as leaves, flowers, fruit, and even insects are sometimes found embedded in the fossil resin. Large fragments of amber cast up by the waves are collected at ebb-tide, and sometimes the shallow-water is dredged, and the amber raked up from between the boulders, while in other places it is mined in underground galleries. It is chiefly used for beads and other ornaments, for cigarette holders, and for the mouth-pieces of pipes.

13. Do you know what causes the "bedeguar" on the wild rose?

The pretty pink, green, and crimson “Bedeguar,” or “Robin’s Pincushion,” often found on the leaves of the wild rose is really a gall formed by an insect called Rhodites rosae. Each gall is a sort of “nursey” in which the early stage of the insect’s life is passed in safety. The picture on the right shows one of these “nurseries” in section, with the grubs in their cells. The parent gall-fly lays its eggs in one of the leaf-buds, causing an irritation in the leaf-tissue which gives rise to the feathery growth we admire so much.

14. Do you know how a coral reef is formed?

The red coral sometimes worn as an ornament, and the larger branched corals seen in the museums, are really the hard skeletons of the coral animal or polyp, a miniature sea-anemone. Countless generations of these creatures have lived and died in the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, piling up cell upon cell until vast structures of hard stony coral “rock” are set up. Sometimes this occurs round the shores of an island, and then a circular “coral reef” is formed, as shown in the lower diagram. The other picture shows a Madrepore Coral, one of the principal reef-builders.

15. Do you know why flowers smell?

Many of our plants require the assistance of insects of various kinds to transfer their pollen from one flower to another and so ensure the formation of the seed. The perfume of the flowers attracts these insects, who fly to gather the honey inside. The honeysuckle, for example, becomes much more fragrant at dusk when the Privet and Convolvulus Hawk-moths appear. These insects are especially attracted by this flower, and seem able to smell its perfume at a great distance. While the moths are diving to the bottom of the long corolla-tubes and sucking the honey, their bodies become well dusted with the pollen.

16. Do you know why we have Easter eggs and hot cross buns?

Eggs were regarded by the ancient Egyptians as emblems of creation, and were adopted in later years by the early Christians at the Easter festival, as symbols of the idea of the Resurrection. The buns now associated with Good Friday are traceable to a very remote period. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans offered marked cakes to their gods. The pagan Saxons ate cross-bread in honour of their goddess of Spring, Eostre, from which Easter is derived. The early Christian Church followed the practice, and marked their cakes or buns with the symbol of the cross, to commemorate the Crucifixion.

18. Do you know why our eyes deceive us?

Our eyes deceive us because as optical instruments they are defective. These defects are due chiefly to the curvature of the refractive surfaces, and also to the dispersion of light by the refractive media of the eye. The sensation of light is excited by the irritation of the retina or of the optic nerve. As the retina is a curved surface, long straight lines, particularly when seen from a distance, are apt to appear curved. In diagrams A and C, although the lines are all the same length, upright lines appear the longest. In diagram B the eye is distracted by the radiating lines, and the upright lines appear to curve. This effect is due to an error of judgment, and may be controlled by a great effort.

19. Do you know how crickets and grasshoppers chirp?

Crickets and grasshoppers both produce their characteristic sounds by similar means—friction. The cricket’s familiar chirping sound is caused by the scraping of the file-like ridge, which runs partly across the underside of one of its wing covers, over the smooth projecting nervure of the other wing case. There are several kinds—the house, the field, and the mole cricket. The stridulation or “song” of the grasshopper is produced by friction of the hind legs against portions of the wings or wing-covers. The field cricket is about once inch long, and the great green grasshopper about one and a half inches long.

20. Do you know a butterfly from a moth?

A butterfly flies by day and rests at night. In resting, its stiff wings are raised, so that its four wings sometimes look like two only. A moth generally flies at dusk or at night, and when at rest folds its wings downwards, round its body, the hind wings are folded up and quite hidden beneath the fore wings. A butterfly has generally a little knob at the end of its feelers or antennae, and it cannot hide them, but a moth turns its antennae under its wings when at rest. A butterfly’s body, as a rule—there are some exceptions—is smaller and more slender than that of a moth.

21. Do you know what causes a mirage?

A mirage is an optical illusion sometimes seen in the hot desert, and also in the Polar Regions. This appearance is due to variations in the refractive index of the atmosphere, and is caused by the rays of light being reflected downwards from the surface of a layer of air of greater density, which under certain conditions occasioned by irregular heating, acts almost as a mirror. Palm trees, ships, or houses are apparently seen in positions many miles from their true places, sometimes quite distinct and sometimes upside-down and distorted. In the straits of Messina, Italy, the Fata Morgana is seen, and consists of apparent elongation of objects situated on the opposite shore.

22. Do you know the origin of the wedding ring?

The earliest existing rings are those found in the tombs of ancient Egypt, but probably rings have been worn from the very earliest times. It was an old Roman custom to give an iron ring to celebrate a betrothal; this was a pledge that the contract would be fulfilled. During the 2nd century gold rings took the place of the iron ones. The use of the ring was of a purely secular origin, but received the sanction of the Church during the 11th century. The wedding ring, which originated from the Roman betrothal ring, is now worn as the distinctive mark of a married woman.

23. Do you know why birds' beaks vary in shape?

By a wise provision of nature birds are provided with beaks specially adapted for them to procure theur suitable food. Swallows and nightjars, which catch insects in their flight, have a wide “gape.” Ducks and geese, which find much of their food in shallow water, have broad flat bill with strainer-like edges. Finches have short and strong beaks for crushing seeds. The curlew and the snipe have long curved beaks which enable these birds to probe deeply in the mud in search of worms &c. Eagles and hawks have powerful hooked and pointed beaks for the purpose of tearing the flesh from their victims.

24. Do you know how pearls are formed?

These are produced by certain mollusks, chiefly oysters, the substance being the same as that which lines the interior of many shells, and is known as nacre, or mother-of-pearl. Sometimes a particle of sand, or other foreign matter, gets embedded in the soft tissues of the oyster and causes a great irritation. The oyster secretes and deposits film after film of pearly matter, which in time transforms the intruder into a beautiful pearl. In the museum of Zosima in Moscow, there is a perfect globular Indian pearl of great beauty, weighing 28 carats, and known as “La Pellegrina,” supposed to be the most perfect pearl in the world.

25. Do you know why the flying-fish flies?

More than forty different species of flying-fish are to be seen in tropical and sub-tropical seas, taking their beautiful flight over the water, sometimes singly, but usually in shoals. The flying-fish does not fly as a bird flies, but leaps of out of the water to escape from larger fish who prey upon it. The enormous fins shown in our picture act as planes or parachutes, and steady the fish as it glides through the air at considerable speed, sometimes as far as 500 feet in one flight. Flying-fish travel farthest against the wind, in rough water.

All images courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

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Brigido Lara, the Artist Whose Pre-Columbian Fakes Fooled Museums Around the World
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In July 1974, Mexican authorities sent a man named Brigido Lara to jail. His crime wasn't a violent one, but it was serious nonetheless: Archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), a Mexican federal government bureau devoted to preserving the nation's heritage, claimed that Lara had been found with ancient ceramic artifacts looted from archeological sites in the state of Veracruz.

Lara was convicted of stealing and smuggling antiquities, but he insisted he wasn't a thief—and he could prove it. All he needed were tools and some clay brought to his jail cell. 


Lara grew up in Veracruz, in the village of Tlalixcoyán. While his parents were peasant farmers, Lara showed artistic talent—specifically, a knack for creating figurines from clay. Veracruz is home to many archaeological sites that date back to hundreds and thousands of years before the arrival of before Christopher Columbus, and the young Lara would often find ancient terra-cotta figurines in the fields and near rivers. He claims that by the time he was 9 years old, he was making versions of these artifacts using clay harvested from a local stream.

As Lara grew older, his skill set expanded. He reportedly taught himself how to prep and oven-fire local clay, and began making objects that mimicked those of several ancient Mesoamerican cultures—imitation Olmec pots, Maya polychrome vessels, and figurines in the Aztec, Mayan, and Totonac styles. He began specializing in replicating works by the Totonacs, a culture that flourished in central Veracruz until the Spanish Conquest introduced diseases that ravaged the communities. These figurines ranged in size from large to tiny, and often depicted mythological gods wearing masks and headdresses.

It's not entirely clear whether Lara began making these figurines for fun or profit. But according to the man himself, traveling dry-goods merchants had noticed his talents before he had even reached his teens. They accepted his "interpretations," as he called his early work, in lieu of cash—then sold them on the black market. Looters also came to Lara, asking him to fix and restore stolen works. Eventually, the artist wound up working in a Mexico City atelier that produced forgeries.

No detail was too tiny for Lara. He visited archaeological sites to study just-dug-up artifacts, and harvested clay from the surrounding region to sculpt exact likenesses. He later told Connoisseur magazine that for true authenticity, he even crafted his own primitive tools and stockpiled 32 grades of cinnabar—a reddish form of mercury used by the Olmec, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that existed between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE—for precise pigmentation. He finished his works with a ancient-looking patina made from cement, lime, hot sugar water, urine, and other ingredients, and coated the final products with a seal made from dirt and glue.

But even though Lara was a stickler for the details, he also took artistic liberties with some of his "interpretations," adding elements that wouldn't have appeared on the original artifacts. Sometimes he would include a fanciful new detail from his imagination: a winged headdress, or one that writhed with serpents; a duck-billed mask, or a dramatic, lifelike pose.

Lara didn't consider himself a forger. "My style was born with me," he told The New York Times in 1987. "I didn't learn from anyone. I studied the pre-Columbian pieces in my town that came from the burial mounds, and I used the ancient techniques. I made these pieces and I am very proud."

But by young adulthood, he'd also become a businessman, selling his unsigned pre-Columbian replicas to middlemen who re-sold them to illegal art collectors both domestically and abroad. "I was aware that many buyers then sold them as authentic pre-Hispanic works," Lara admitted to Art & Antiques magazine years later.


Lara's forgery career may have continued undetected had he and four of his buyers not been apprehended in 1974 and charged with trafficking in pre-Columbian works. The police didn't consider Lara an artist or a forger—his works looked so real, the authorities thought they'd been dug right out of the ground.

Lara was sentenced to 10 years in jail. To regain his freedom, he devised a plan: He asked law enforcement officials to grant his lawyer permission to bring him clay and art tools. Right there in his cell, Lara created replicas of the antiques he'd reportedly stolen. Experts from the INAH examined the earthen artworks, and declared them "genuine" ancient artifacts.

The stunt worked. Lara had proven he had made the works himself, not smuggled them out of ancient sites. Finally convinced of his innocence, prison officials released him in January 1975 after he'd served only seven months of his sentence.

After his release, Alfonso Medellín Zenil, head of the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, offered Lara a job. "Our policy is, when you can't beat them, hire them," Fernando Winfield Capitaine, then the museum's director, joked to Connoisseur.

The Museo de Antropología is home to an extensive collection of artifacts from Mexico's Gulf Coast produced by ancient indigenous peoples such as the Olmec, the Huastec, and the Totonac. Lara was hired to restore these works as well as to make replicas for the museum's gift shop.

But his career as a forger wasn't behind him quite yet.


In the early 1980s, Veracruz governor Agustín Acosta Lagunes began repatriating pre-Columbian works from abroad, expanding the collections at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. But when Lara saw some of these imported works, which had been purchased at Sotheby's auction house in New York City, he pronounced them fakes. He knew, he said, because he'd made many of them—including a figure of a male dancer that had been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s “Ancient Art of Veracruz” exhibit in 1971.

Little by little, it emerged that Lara’s works might have made their way into pre-Columbian art collections around the world, including in prestigious museums such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, as well as in renowned private collections. Lara claimed credit for a 3-foot statue of the Mexican wind god Ehecatl in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and out of approximately 150 works on display in the "Ancient Art of Veracruz" exhibit, asserted that he had made about a dozen.

Among the most notorious fakes Lara claimed to have created were three life-size ceramic sculptures in the Dallas Museum of Art that had once belonged to film director John Huston. "If you look at them closely, they are copies," Lara told the Associated Press in 1987. The works were attributed to the Totonac, and thought to have been made between 600 to 900 CE. Lara, however, claimed to have produced them during the 1950s: "The details are different than the originals … the details in the breast decorations, in the shoulder patches and so on," he said. "They are very different. They are originals of course—my own."

As news spread about Lara’s forgeries, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Met in New York City, and the Dallas Museum of Art responded to the controversy by taking works off display. "All three museums acknowledged that many of the Veracruz-style objects in their collections were problematic," Matthew H. Robb, a former curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum who is now chief curator at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, tells Mental Floss.

Nobody knows exactly how Lara’s creations made their way into American museums (Lara blamed various high-profile art traffickers and dealers), but experts say they noticed when suspicious artifacts resembling his work first began popping up in the 1950s, as pre-Columbian art was becoming more and more popular among American art collectors. "They appeared out of nowhere, resembling nothing previously excavated," Edmund Carpenter, a New York archeologist, told The New York Times. "I saw some in New York, Los Angeles, Paris. Museums bought them, big collectors bought them. But nobody asked, 'How come a big find like this?'"

Bryan Just, a curator and lecturer on pre-Columbian art at the Princeton University Art Museum, chalks the phenomena up to scholarly ignorance. At the time, "there wasn't a lot of material available for comparison," he tells Mental Floss. "There are many regions, including Veracruz … where not a whole lot of archeology had been done. So for a lot of these [new] artworks, there weren't great sources to reference that answered questions like, 'How should this stuff really look?' And at that time, what had been excavated may not have been published."

There was also a shortage of experts to consult because the very idea of pre-Columbian relics as art was still relatively new. Connoisseurs only began collecting and selling these works in the early 20th century, and university scholars didn’t begin offering pre-Columbian art history courses until the 1950s, according to Just.

Not that collectors were necessarily consulting scholars in the first place: "If you were considering work that was offered to you by a dealer, you may have not wanted to consult a colleague who's an expert in that particular area if they work at a collecting institution," Just says. "You know, out of concern that they might snag it up before you do."

Fortunately, modern scholars have access to a greater body of knowledge about pre-Columbian art than their predecessors. "In retrospect, when I see Lara's stuff now, it seems pretty obvious to me that it's wrong," Just says. "It doesn't make sense when you think about it in terms of the broader context of what we know about these particular traditions."

But even today, it isn't always easy to ascertain what's real and what's not when it comes to pre-Columbian art. Experts sometimes use thermoluminescence tests, which involve removing a tiny piece of the object, grinding it up, heating it in a furnace, and observing how much light it emits. Ideally, this process can measure how long ago the clay was fired, but the results can be skewed if a work was recently exposed to extreme heat or had been cleaned.

Another issue is that "lots of these complicated ceramic sculptures are pastiches," Victoria Lyall, a curator of pre-Columbian art at the Denver Art Museum, tells Mental Floss. Artists "will use bits of older sculptures and put them back together. So you have to test a lot of different spots to really get a better sense of whether the entire piece is fake."

X-rays are a good way to spot a composite, but they interfere with thermoluminescence test results, putting conservationists between a rock and a hard place. Furthermore, clays from certain regions—like the clay Lara worked with in Veracruz—reportedly aren't as conducive to thermoluminescence testing.


Lara is now in his mid-70s. He no longer restores antiques at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa full-time, but he still works as a consultant there, and he continues to make art under his own name. However, his legacy will forever be tied with the difficult history of pre-Columbian artwork. According to experts, it's possible that his artworks are still masquerading as artifacts around the world, and that he may have even helped shape modern scholars' perception of pre-Columbian art from Veracruz.

However, it's also feasible that Lara's stories are a composite of fact and fiction—just like his work. The artist claims to have made thousands of forgeries (one estimate places the number at more than 40,000 pieces), but some experts say it would have been nearly impossible for Lara—who was only in his 30s when he was arrested—to have produced so many works in just a few decades.

Plus, the timelines don't always add up: Lara "was about 8 years old at the time that the [Ehecatl statue] was supposedly manufactured and purchased by the Met," Lyall says.

Lara also claims to have been self-taught, but some have speculated that he's stretched the truth about his natural talent. He may have instead learned his trade by apprenticing at a young age in a Veracruz workshop that specialized in forgeries, theorizes Jesse Lerner, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College. Lara "denies all that, but it's hard to know … Just by the nature of his business, it's kind of shady," Lerner tells Mental Floss. (Lerner's 1999 documentary Ruins—a look at the history of Mexican archeology and the traffic in fakes—features an interview with Lara.)

This workshop might have sold both Lara's wares and similar works to international collectors through an established underground market. Such a scenario would explain the artist's familiarity with pieces in faraway collections, like the Met's statue, which he could describe in great detail despite likely having never produced it with his own hands. Because forgeries aren't exactly signed, it's difficult to know for sure which pieces are Lara's and which may have been made by other forgers.

Either way, Lara's frauds are a reminder to avoid believing everything you read—even if it's a label in a museum. And they offer another lesson, too.

"The types of ancient works that Lara and other forgers were imitating, they weren't intended as aesthetic objects," Lerner says. "They weren't for museums. They were representations of this whole world view of cosmic forces."

That makes forgeries like Lara's particularly problematic. "If the only way we can access that worldview is through these objects that survive, [Lara] is just adding bad data to the pool of data that we have available. He's messing up everyone's understanding of who these figures are representing, and how their universe was understood and functioned."

In other words, sometimes fakes don't just fool art lovers—they can also change our understanding of history.

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U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
10 Cold War Artifacts From the Real-Life Bridge of Spies Auction
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U-2 designer Kelly Johnson with Francis Gary Powers (left to right).
U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The 2015 Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies tells the story of a captured U.S. Air Force pilot who was released from Soviet prison in exchange for the freedom of a KGB spy during the Cold War. To mark the 55-year anniversary of that historic prisoner swap, Guernsey’s is auctioning off items that belonged to the real-life military hero Francis Gary Powers.

The artifacts, donated to the auction house by Powers’s son, depict what life was like for an American spy during the Cold War. The Espionage Collection includes gear built for high-altitude covert missions, as well as documents written by Powers during his imprisonment. Here are some of the most fascinating objects going up for bid on October 6 and 7.


Flight suit used on air force jet.

On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers attempted to fly deeper into Soviet airspace than any U.S. reconnaissance mission had gone before. The U-2 plane was famously shot down and its pilot captured, turning what should have been a covert operation into a historic Cold War pressure point. When the auction opens in October, one lucky bidder will snag a perfect copy of the flight suit Powers wore that day. Never-been-worn, the suit still includes its two intact air hoses, similar to those that kept Powers alive when flying through the upper atmosphere. Similar technology was used to build the gear worn by astronauts and cosmonauts during the space race.

Starting bid: $5000


Raft used on military jet.

While the flight suit above was never actually worn by Powers, this raft was likely on board his U-2 with him the day it was shot down in 1960. Experts believe the item was salvaged and displayed in a Soviet museum following the failed reconnaissance mission. After the museum was looted, the raft was allegedly used by local fishermen for years before it was returned to Powers’s family. The flotation device measures 7-by-15-feet folded and features its original plastic inflation tube still bearing old teeth marks.

Starting bid: $750


Soviet propaganda poster.

The Bridge of Spies auction features several Soviet Union propaganda posters, including prints of Lady Justice and Vladimir Lenin. This Soviet workers poster, with a gold hammer and sickle against a field of grain, showcases some of the most iconic imagery from the era.

Starting bid: $250


Fluid containment vessel used by air force pilots.

When you've got to go, you've got to go—even if you’re a spy in the middle of a top-secret mission thousands of miles above Soviet soil. For long U-2 flights, Powers zipped this container into one of the pockets of his suit and pulled it out when he needed to relieve himself. As the item description reads, “This historic and straightforward piece of equipment proves that smart design can take you great distances.”

Starting bid: $500


Six Cold War-era booklets spread out on a table.

The U.S. government formed the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938 to investigate citizens and organizations with suspected Soviet leanings. These six booklets dictate hearings from the committee in 1960 and outline the “subversive activities of anyone believed to have ties to Communist organizations.” They provide important context for how Cold War tensions manifested in America the year Powers was captured.

Starting bid: $200


Cover of an old notebook.

Faced with up to 10 years in USSR custody, Gary Powers started teaching himself Russian shortly after he was sentenced. His notebook from that time contains two pages of English words paired with their Russian definitions handwritten in pencil. Despite his status as a prisoner of war, this behavior actually got him into trouble back in the States. Anti-Soviet sentiments were so high at the time that Powers was branded a traitor for daring to learn the language of the enemy. Fortunately this label didn’t last forever, and today he’s considered a military hero.

Starting bid: $750


Tan trench coat on a coat hanger.

Nothing says “spy” like a good, vintage trench coat. This tan London Towne jacket worn by Powers in the 1960s was originally made for Army officers. The durable cotton garment features one visible button at the neck and four concealed lower buttons for a sleek, mysterious look.

Starting bid: $600


Map of the U.S. framed behind glass.

Nuclear conflict wasn’t just a vague threat for many Americans during the Cold War—it was an imminent reality they needed to prepare for. This atmosphere of terror produced such items as this nuclear fallout map, published by the District of Columbia Office of Civil Defense in 1960. The 28.5-by-40.5-inch map depicts the contiguous United States with the longitude and latitude points of potential radioactive decay.

Starting bid: $200


A section of lattice iron fencing.

In addition to being one of the most powerful metaphors of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain was also a literal barrier that divided Eastern and Western Europe in some rural parts of the continent. This rare 11-by-16-inch patch of iron fencing shows the welded design that prevented many Eastern Europeans from escaping Communist rule from the late 1940s to 1991.

Starting bid: $350


Pages of a letter and a postcard.

Powers wrote a letter to his wife Barbara on December 13, 1960, seven months after his capture. He wrote of his condition in the facility as well as his outlook on his situation. "As long as I do not lose hope everything will be alright,” he said. “I haven't lost hope yet." He was also interested in the new president-elect John F. Kennedy, who would come to have a major impact on the Cold War following his inauguration in 1961. Powers wrote: "Would you send me a copy of Kennedy's inauguration speech and any other statements he makes. I am very interested in what his views are and especially what his foreign policy will be..." As well as giving insight into Powers’s state of mind during this time, the document is also a Russian artifact, sporting full-color Soviet-era stamps.

Starting bid: $1500


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