FAKE HISTORIES#8 – 22.2.19 The Oscar statuette has a commercial value of only $1?



Next Monday night in Los Angeles the filmmaking community will gather for its annual orgy of mutual backslapping and backstabbing, known as the Academy Awards. The orchestra will drown out speeches that stray beyond forty-five seconds in length. The TV audience will get bored and go to bed half-way through. And there will be tears, boy will there be tears! Some of them will be shed onstage as Oscars are accepted with becoming humility or unseemly gloating. Others will be blinked back by the four rejected candidates in the major categories.

But it’s probably fair to say, given the sums of money lavished on Hollywood stars, that there probably won’t be too many of the successful nominees looking at their statuettes and thinking, ‘I wonder how much I can get for this on eBay?’. That’s because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences long ago devised a mechanism to ensure that every second pawn shop in downtown LA wasn’t selling Academy Award statuettes hocked by winners in the ‘best supporting’ categories, who then succumbed to the infamous Oscar Curse, and couldn’t get any more work. It may well be because of their ‘buy back’ policy that a persistent myth has arisen. This suggests that the statuette itself is worth only $1!

Should you find yourself in need of a bit of spare cash, or maybe the golden statuette clashes with your new curtains, you can’t just sell it on the open market. For all Oscars won after 1950 you first have to offer the statuette back to the Academy for a single dollar. It serves to discourage a brisk trade in Oscar as a collectable. So, in that sense at least certain statuettes could be said to be only worth one dollar.

But the cut-off date of 1950 means that there actually is a brisk trade in Oscar as a collectable. In 1999 the late Michael Jackson paid more than one and a half million dollars for the Gone With the Wind Best Picture Oscar from 1939. Vivien Leigh’s Best Actress statuette from the same film fetched half a million dollars.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration the intrinsic value of the post-1950 statuettes in terms of raw materials and labour. They weigh around four kilos each, are 24 carat gold-plated, over copper and nickel silver, and are reckoned to cost around $400 each to produce. They are just over 34 cms tall and their official name is the Academy Award of Merit.

Another contributory factor to the myth that they are only worth a dollar might have come from the World War 2 period. From 1942 to 1945 they had other uses for metal in the USA, so the Oscar statuettes were made from gold-painted plaster. After the war recipients of Academy Awards during those three years were invited to redeem their plaster saints for the real thing. One winner was particularly grateful for that indulgence. The Irish character actor, Barry Fitzgerald won the 1944 Best Supporting Actor gong for his portrayal of a grumpy Irish priest in the Bing Crosby vehicle, Going My Way. Fitzgerald, like the star of the film, was a keen golf fan and managed to shatter his ersatz Oscar taking an indoor practice swing.


The Academy always has a few spare statuettes handy on the night of the awards ceremony, just in case of a tie. It has happened on a number of occasions over the years that two candidates have received exactly the same number of votes. In fact, in times gone by, if there was only a single vote between the top two nominees, the generous academy would deem the result a tie and give each of them an Oscar.

As to the name ‘Oscar’ itself – in keeping with the prevailing mythology, it does actually appear to have come from the Academy’s librarian Margaret Herrick, who said, when she first saw the statuette, designed by Dubliner Cedric Gibbons, ‘It looks just like my Uncle Oscar’. So at least that famous story is not a myth. The Academy itself gave up the ghost and started officially calling the statuette after Uncle Oscar in 1939.

But, is the Oscar statuette only worth a dollar? No, it isn’t. That’s fake history.



Cedric Gibbons with Oscar


Fake Histories #7 – 15.2.2019  Duchess Anastasia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas, survived the assassination of the Romanovs?



Thirty-five years ago, this week, a woman named Anna Anderson died in Charlottesville, Virginia, aged eighty-seven. She was cremated and her ashes were carried across the Atlantic and buried in the grounds of a Benedictine Monastery in Bavaria.

But her name wasn’t really Anna Anderson. She was originally Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker born in East Prussia in 1896, and she was probably the best-known imposter of the twentieth century. Anna Anderson, aka Franziska Schanzkowska claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Contrary to reports coming out of the Soviet Union in July 1918 she had, or at least so she claimed, not been murdered along with the other members of her family by a Bolshevik firing squad.

Anderson had first come to public attention in 1920 when she was stopped from throwing herself off a bridge in Berlin. She was admitted to a German psychiatric hospital as Fraülein Unbekannt (‘Miss Unknown’). It was another inmate who first claimed that the unidentified woman was a daughter of the Tsar. From 1922 onwards the legend of Anastasia seemed to grow, aided by emigré Russians whose cause would have been greatly assisted by a surviving member of the Romanov dynasty.

Anna’s own cause received a boost when Tatiana Melnik, the daughter of the Romanov private physician, Dr. Eugene Botkin, positively identified her as Anastasia in 1926. Melnik, whose father had been gunned down along with the Russian Royal family, had met Anastasia when the Duchess was sixteen years old. Melnik then took Anna under her wing, filling in what she described as ‘gaps’ in Anna’s memory by coaching her in many of the domestic details of the Romanov’s lives. All perfectly above board, course.


Surviving relatives of the Tsar, however, were more difficult to convince. Prince Felix Yusopov, for example, the man responsible for the murder of the so-called ‘Mad  Monk’, Grigori Rasputin (no relation to Vladimir Rasputin) and the Tsar’s nephew by marriage, described Anna as ‘an adventuress, a sick hysteric and a frightful playactress’. The late Tsar’s family had her claims thoroughly investigated and were able to identify her as Schanzkowska in 1927.

However, Anna had many Russian emigré supporters in the USA. These included the composer Sergei Rachmaninov. When she travelled to New York in 1928 Rachmaninov booked her into a New York hotel under the pseudonym ‘Anderson’ and she adopted it from that time onwards. Anna became the fulcrum of a Russian emigré civil conflict with the warring sides either championing her cause or dismissing her claims as fantasy.

After eighteen months in New York Anderson began to display once more some of the self-destructive behaviour for which she had been noted in Germany. This included wandering naked around rooftops. A New York Supreme Court judge, Peter Schmuck (I kid you not) signed an order committing her to a sanatorium. In 1932 she was allowed to return to Germany where she lived until 1968. Then in 1984 she returned to the USA where she married a fellow eccentric, a Virginia history professor and genealogist, Jack Manahan. He, thereafter, described himself as ‘Grand-Duke in waiting’. As she grew older Anna’s mental health problems continued and she was often institutionalised. On one occasion Manahan kidnapped her from a hospital and the couple evaded capture by driving around the state of Virginia for three days, subsisting on purchases from convenience stores, thus proving that such a thing is physiologically possible.

Anna Anderson’s claims were disputed, litigated, scorned and buttressed but they were finally laid to rest in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, by which stage Anna had been dead for seven years. A common grave near Yekaterinburg in Russia was identified as the final resting place of nine members of the Romanov family and their entourage. In 1992 samples were taken from fragments of the teeth and bones of the nine skeletons. These were checked against the DNA of Prince Philip, maternal grandson of Tsarina Alexandra’s sister. The DNA test proved that one of the bodies was that of the Grand Duchess Anastasia.

This finally gave the lie to any notion that Anastasia had somehow managed to survive assassination by the newly installed Bolshevik regime. That was fake history.





Fake Histories #6 – 8.2.19  Thousands of ordinary Dutch people lost their fortunes buying tulips in one of the first speculative bubbles in history




If the definition of a financial ‘bubble’ is when asset prices of a commodity, real or virtual, are at variance with its intrinsic value, then the Dutch tulip mania of 1637 was one of those huge bubbles blown from a machine in a funfair into which you could fit a small child. It was towards the end of the first week of February 1637 that everything finally went ‘pop’ in the world’s first, and last, horticultural bubble.

The tulip, which had originated in warmer climes, arrived in the Netherlands towards the end of the sixteenth century. It didn’t take long for a thriving market in tulip bulbs to develop. And it didn’t take much longer for that market to completely lose the run of itself. It developed into a primitive ‘futures’ exchange where actual bulbs were not being traded, but the promise of bulbs to come.

Over a few febrile months in the winter of 1636-37 bulbs which didn’t even exist were reportedly changing hands, at escalating prices, up to ten times a day.

The Scottish journalist, Charles Mackay, in 1841 wrote a popular account of what he hailed as a speculative mania. It was called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Some of his rhetoric may sound uncomfortably familiar to an Irish audience. A Drumm-beat perhaps.

‘Many individuals grew suddenly rich. A golden bait hung temptingly out       before the people, and, one after the other, they rushed to the tulip   marts, like flies around a honey-pot. Every one imagined that the passion for tulips would last for ever, and that the wealthy from every part of the world would send to Holland, and pay whatever prices were asked for them.’


It just kept getting better and better, until it didn’t. The reckoning came when, after weeks of rising prices someone woke up one morning in early February 1637 and decided it was all getting rather silly. Instead of paying even more money for some overpriced flowers that bloom for about week in April or May,  they went and bought a painting from a young artist named Rembrandt.  Ironically the graph of virtual tulip bulb prices resembles one of those hats you often see Dutch men wearing in portraits by the painter. It goes straight upwards, flattens out for a bit, and then plunges down the other side.

One man who went to town on the debacle was another Dutch artist, Jan Brueghel the Younger—and, yes, you’d be right in thinking his Dad was Jan Brueghel the Elder. Brueghel, in his 1640 painting, named A Satire of Tulip Mania, depicts the purchasers of the flowers as monkeys wearing aristocratic clothes. One of the primates is depicted as urinating on the previously precious plants. Another is being carted off in a coffin. It makes its point very vividly, while, at the same time being rather unfair to monkeys.

Mackay refers to one transaction which, he claimed, highlighted the insanity of this short period of manic speculation. A single bulb changed hands for a basket of goods, worth 2500 florins—that’s almost €30,000 today. The products bartered included four oxen, eight pigs, twelve sheep, four tons of beer, two tons of butter and a thousand pounds of cheese. However, modern economists now dispute Mackay’s research and insist that the manic buying and selling of tulip bulbs was restricted to a tiny group of wealthy speculators.  So, it would appear that not everybody partied back in 1637.

The tulip mania, far from dragging into penury any significant proportion of the Dutch population, appears to have been confined to a few extremely wealthy individuals who assumed they had the Midas touch. As with that tiny handful of bankers who actually lost out in the financial crash of 2008, while you might try manfully to summon up a scintilla of sympathy for the demented tulip buyers, it’s actually not worth it. It’s painfully hard to feel sorry for people with loads of money who lose it all trying to make even vaster loads of money.

So, did the Dutch tulip bubble of 1637 explode in the faces of a  highly leveraged nation resulting in hard times for the people of the Netherlands? No, it just caught out the undeserving rich. So, it’s fake history.


FAKE HISTORIES#5 – Was Saint Brigid a canonised saint of the Roman Catholic Church?



Hopefully by now you will already have woven your traditional St. Brigid’s cross so that nothing I have to say on the subject of the eponymous holy woman will stay your hand as you twist the strands into their intricate pattern, and clip off the ends so that the extremities are neat and flush.

Because you may not like what you are about to hear.

Tradition has it that Brigid was born in Faughart, Co. Louth in the year 451, two decades after the advent of Christianity in Ireland. Her mother is said to have been a Scottish slave baptised by St. Patrick, so Brigid herself was born into slavery.  She is recorded as having founded a number of monasteries, most notably in Kildare, or Cill Dara, the ‘Church of the Oak’. Among the Lilywhites she is known as Brigid of Kildare. While abbess of that monastery she founded a school of art which produced the Book of Kildare. This beautifully illustrated volume managed to draw the praise of the infamous Hibernophobe Gerald of Wales, making it the only thing about Ireland Gerald ever saw that he actually liked. Tradition has it that she died in Kildare in 525 at the grand old age of seventy-two.

Brigid is informally recognised as a saint in no less than three Christian religions, Roman Catholicism, the Anglican communion, and Eastern Orthodox Catholicism. But the devil is in the word ‘informally’ because in 1969 she, along with dozens of other virtuous early Christians, had her name expunged from the list of saints by the Vatican. The Vatican doesn’t just remove things, it ‘expunges’ them. It was a bit like a drastic cabinet reshuffle with lots of patron saints losing their portfolios.

Among those deprived of their haloes in this cull was Saint Christopher, patron saint of travellers and, worst of all, Saint Nicholas, the man who later became Santa Claus. So, while good old Father Christmas can still climb up and down chimneys, and bring presents to millions of children, as far as the Vatican is concerned he can’t perform miracles. Brigid was handed her P45 because there were serious doubts as to whether she ever existed. So, was she real, does she have anything to do with the weaving of reed crosses on 1 February – and please keep this to yourself—was she actually a pagan goddess?

As Brigid was one of ninety-three saints removed from the universal calendar in 1969 she also had her feast day officially revoked. So, technically, 1 February is no longer St. Brigid’s Day.  There is still a saint called Bridget, but she’s Bridget of Sweden. She seems to have three different feast days, one in July and two in October. Meanwhile our unfortunate Brigid has none.

The suspicion is that she was stripped of her status just because she shared a name with a pagan goddess.


The eminent Irish historian Daithí O’hÓgáin thinks the woman we now know as Brigid might well have been chief druid at the pagan temple to the goddess of the same name, and that she was responsible for turning the temple into a Christian monastery. Her Christian feast day, also happens to be the date of the pagan feast day of Imbolc. Imbolc is up there with Bealtaine, Lúnasa and Samhain as one of the four great pagan seasonal festivals.  Because it was equidistant between the winter solstice and the spring equinox Imbolc celebrated the beginning of spring. Which, in an Irish context is, you would have to say, the perpetual triumph of optimism over experience. Can any Irish person put their hand on their heart and recall a single St. Brigid’s Day that felt even remotely spring-like?

The Christian Brigid had a heavy portfolio of responsibilities– in alphabetical order these included babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, brewers, cattle, chicken farmers, children in trouble, dairymaids, fugitives, infants, Ireland, Leinster, midwives, nuns, poets, the poor, poultry farmers, printing presses, sailors, scholars and travellers. The pagan Goddess Brigid had it easy by comparison, she was in charge of fertility, which, let’s face it, can’t have been a major problem in pre-Christian Ireland.

The Christian Brigid had two miraculous talents which must have made her very popular indeed and will have convinced a lot of pagans that Christianity wasn’t so bad after all. She could control the rain and the wind-always a good trick on the rainy, windy, periphery of Europe and, with even more mass appeal, she could turn water into wine.

But is she a canonised saint? Sadly, not since 1969. It’s fake history.