Image: Dominic Winter Auctioneers

Now’s your chance to own a piece of hoax history: two of the infamous Cottingley fairy photos, through which a couple of girls convinced an impressive number of influential people that fairies were in fact real.

The Guardian reported on the sale at Dominic Winter Auctioneers. In 1917, 16-year-old Elsie Wright and nine-year-old Frances Griffiths decided to create a little proof to substantiate what they were confident was true, using paper cutouts, hat pins, and a camera. Things spiraled:

While Elsie’s father, a keen amateur photographer who developed the prints, never doubted they were fakes, his wife Polly was a believer and in 1919 she took prints of the two photographs to show members of the Theosophical Society in Bradford, where they were giving a lecture on fairy life.

From there things spiralled out of control, first through the enthusiastic belief of a leading society member, Edward Gardner, who used the photography expert Harold Snelling to produce photographic prints of them to be sold at Gardner’s theosophical lectures in 1920.

It was during 1920 that Conan Doyle, a committed and leading spiritualist believer, became aware of the photographs and wanted to use them for an article on fairies he had been commissioned to write for the Strand Magazine.

It became a huge public controversy, playing into the broader spiritualist movement raging at the time. Eventually, the Telegraph explained, they finally admitted it:

In a 1983 letter to Geoffrey Crawley, a journalist who had written extensively about the Cottingley Fairies, Elsie finally admitted how she and Frances had taken the pictures, and said they persisted with the story for so many years because they didn’t want to embarrass all the people who had believed them, Conan Doyle especially, and waited until everyone had died before admitting the hoax.

Whoops!

Image: Dominic Winter Auctioneers

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