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Antique forgery of a letter from Robert Burns to James Johnson

Identifier: Coll-1166

Scope and Contents

Letter refers to ill-health, and to mis-spellings in 'Hyslop's bill'. It is address to Mr. Jas. Johnson, Engraver, Music Shop, Lawn Market, Edinburgh.

The collection also includes a cover, noted: 'Letter of the poet Burns received from Mr. James Stewart Merchant Burrowstounness January 1851'.


  • Creation: 1796

Language of Materials


Biographical / Historical

The letter is said to be a forgery of a letter from Robert Burns to Edinburgh engraver James Johnson by forger Alexander Howland 'Antique' Smith. Smith was responsible for forgeries of letters not only by Robert Burns but by Sir Walter Scott and Mary Stuart and many prominent historical figures. He had earned the nickname ‘Antique’ Smith from his interest in old documents and ephemera. Smith appeared in the High Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh, on 26 June 1893 charged with selling and pawning spurious manuscripts as genuine, obtaining money by pretending that certain documents were genuine and not what they purported to be, and by offering false stories as to the origin of documents and manuscripts when knowing them to be false. The circulation of forgeries came to light the previous November in an article in theEdinburgh Evening Dispatch. Facsimiles of the forgers notes had been included in the article and a reader recognised the handwriting as that of a copying clerk working in various Edinburgh law offices - the clerk was 'Antique' Smith.

Smith's explanation was that while in employment with the firm of Thomas Henry Ferrier WS as chief clerk he had been asked to get rid of a huge quantity of old documents that had accumulated in the cellars of the law office. On examining these he had found that many of the documents were of value and so he had begun selling them to booksellers, auction rooms and pawnbrokers. When the original stock ran out he had then provided fakes to replace them, and he claimed that he was able to supply any type of document required.

Smith - the one and only mass-producer of literary forgeries in Scottish history - was found guilty on all charges but leniency was recommended. He was sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment.


1 folder

Physical Location


Forgery of a letter from Robert Burns to James Johnson, Engraver, Lawn Market, Edinburgh, by Alexander Howland 'Antique' Smith (fl.1888-1892)
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Repository Details

Part of the University of Edinburgh Library Heritage Collections Repository

Centre for Research Collections
University of Edinburgh Main Library
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Edinburgh EH8 9LJ Scotland
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