Faking Fraktur

The highly decorative manuscripts created by German immigrants and their descendants from about 1740 to 1860 are known as fraktur for their broken, or “fractured,” style of lettering. Decorated with flowers, hearts, angels, various animals, and sometimes even people, these colorful documents have become highly prized by collectors of American folk art. Hand lettered and drawn in ink and watercolor, they take the form of birth and baptismal certificates, bookplates, rewards of merit, family records, writing samples, holiday greetings, and religious texts.

Many public and private collections of fraktur have been published, and photos are now widely available online. Because it is possible to see images of thousands of genuine examples, collectors and scholars have become aware of an increasing number of fakes that have come onto the market.



Fraktur became highly collectible in the early 1900s, but dealers and collectors did not always document their history of ownership at the time. Many fraktur include names and dates, so genealogical information can often be used to identify their original owners and locate them geographically. Some collectors value fraktur for having been owned by important early collectors or for their history of public exhibition.


Both of the fraktur displayed here are close copies of known examples, but the differences in materials, techniques, and signs of aging are important. Each is based on the work of a known fraktur artist, but a comparison with genuine examples shows that the handwriting is looser; the creator guessed at the lettering and did not understand the original German. The paint on the copies is more opaque than early watercolors and has no craquelure, or flaking/cracking of the pigments. There is also no haloing or sinking of the ink, which is sometimes associated with an aged document made with iron-gall ink.

Fake Fraktur

This is a copy of a fraktur once owned by Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, important early collectors of antiques and folk art paintings. The original was exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in 1954 and was featured on the cover of the auction catalogue for the Garbisch sale in November 1974. The fraktur was sold again in 1977 at the Pennypacker Auction Centre and was fully illustrated in color. Given the notoriety of these sales and the prominence of this image, it is not surprising that this piece was used as the basis for making the copy. The original is attributed to fraktur artist Johann Conrad Trevits (1751−1830).

Fake fraktur
Artist unknown; ca. 1975
Gift of Christopher Rebollo 2013.40

This illustration is from the 1977 auction at the Pennypacker Auction Centre and shows the whole of the original in color. Although the decorative borders were illustrated in color on the cover of the catalogue for the Garbisch sale, the full image including the lettering was only in black and white, suggesting that the fake was created after 1977. Compare this one to the fake. Can you spot any obvious differences?


Fake Bookplate


The handwriting on this fraktur is copied from a writing exercise booklet (Vorschriften Büchlein) made in 1808 for Anna Mayer of Plumstead Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and part of the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The original, illustrated in the catalogue of their collection in 1976, has a vertical orientation and features a heart-shape central text panel. The copyist changed the name on the bookplate from Anna Mayer to Abraham Meyer but was unaware that the German feminine suffix (-in) used on Anna’s surname should not be used on Abraham’s. The border decoration and tulips were likely copied from the work of fraktur artist David Kulp and are known to have been used to create other fakes.

Fake bookplate
Artist unknown; before 2005
Gift of Don Olson 2015.29

Compare the lettering on the fraktur (above) in the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia to the original (below). Can you see the subtle differences?

Writing exercise booklet (Vorschriften Büchlein) for Anna Mayer
School of Johann Adam Eyer
Bucks County, Pennsylvania; 1808
Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Department, Fraktur Collection


Compare the decoration on the fraktur (above) with that on an original in the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia (below). Can you see the stylistic similarities that might result in an attribution to fraktur artist David Kulp (1777−1834)?

Bookplate for Esther Kolb
Attributed to David Kulp
Bucks County, Pennsylvania; 1812
Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Department, Fraktur Collection


Scientific Analysis

The color palette on the bookplate is atypical for a period fraktur, particularly the vivid greens and blues. XRF analysis confirms the use of modern pigments rather than the copper-based green, Prussian blue, and vermilion or red lead that would be expected on an original fraktur. The paper used to make the bookplate tested positive for alum rosin sizing, not used before 1830.

Scientific Research & Analysis Laboratory, Winterthur Museum



These fraktur, good copies of known examples, are clearly fake. It is not known whether they were created with the intention to deceive. They did, however, fool their previous owners.

Tips for Authenticating Fraktur

  • When attempting to authenticate fraktur, examine both sides of the work, if possible, to look for signs of age as well as any condition issues that may not be visible from the front. Does the ink show signs of “sinking” through the paper to the back side? Do the pigments have evidence of age such as craquelure (flaking/cracks)? Is the type of paper consistent with the date of the fraktur? Wove paper did not come into common use on fraktur until about 1820.
  • Are the handwriting and motifs compatible with those on other fraktur by the same artist? If the piece is dated, is the date consistent with the artist’s life or working dates? Consult museum collections, books on fraktur, and online databases for comparative examples. Be extra cautious if the piece appears to be a close copy of a published or otherwise well-known fraktur.
  • The most commonly faked fraktur are bookplates and other pieces that contain little or no writing, as Fraktur lettering and especially German script are particularly difficult to render. If possible, check that the text itself also makes sense. Some fake pieces contain obvious mistakes such as the presence of the feminine suffix—“in” or “en”—on masculine surnames. If a bookplate is still in situ, look for signs of ink and pigments that have transferred to adjacent pages, indicating a long-term presence. For larger fraktur, look for signs of age and use, such as fold lines or longitudinal creases and small tears along the edges that indicate the piece was rolled up for a long time.
  • When in doubt, have the pigments analyzed. It is much easier to obtain old paper than to use authentic pigments, but even the use of period-appropriate pigments will not produce the degradation expected on authentic fraktur.



Minardi, Lisa, and Jennifer L. Mass. “Faux Fraktur: Too Good to be True.” Antiques & Fine Art (Summer 2014). https://www.incollect.com/articles/faux-fraktur