These aerial dogfight photos from WWI are amazing fakes (and they’re about to be auctioned off)


posted Monday, August 12, 2013 at 7:04 PM EDT


As far as hoaxes go, these photos are some of the most spectacular fakes we've ever seen. They're purportedly shots of aerial combat from World War I, showing dogfights between British and German planes over Europe.

The images, which are so close up you can see the planes firing on each other and pilots falling from the sky, first surfaced in the 1930s when a woman who claimed to be the widow of a British Royal Flying Corps pilot sold them to a publisher for US$20,000. The collection was eventually published as a book called "Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot."

According to the woman, who went by the name "Mrs. Gladys Maud Cockburne-Lange," her husband had mounted a camera on his plane, with the shutter triggered by firing the plane's machine gun. A tall tale, perhaps, especially when you consider that several shots included British planes in them, which would have been impossible unless he was firing on his own men.

Other red flags included the plane's wheels, which looked too pristine considering the rough conditions of runways at the time; and the fact that the widow refused to be contacted in person. But the public wanted to believe, leading the images to be appear in newspapers and galleries around the world.


It wasn't until 1984 that the photos were definitively ruled to be fakes after the Smithsonian received a donation of materials from an American pilot, Wesley David Archer, who had flown with the RFC and later went on to become a special effects wizard in Hollywood. Some of the images in the pilot's collection included original versions of the photos with wires holding up what were clearly model airplanes. The wires had apparently later been airbrushed out by Archer, whose wife was revealed to be Mrs. Gladys Maud Cockburne-Lange. After falling on hard times during the Great Depression, the couple had sold the faked photos to make money to survive.

While the photos are hoaxes, they're still unique documents and are scheduled to be auctioned off tomorrow at the Noble Nusimatics Pty Ltd. in Melbourne, Australia and via online bidding. The 34 black-and-white images are expected to fetch US$1,150, which, to us, seems kind of low, even for fakes.

If you're interested in WWI photos, check out these recently discovered, rare images captured by a German officer during the war.

(Via Slate and Luminous Lint)