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Scientists Explain Drake's Plate Hoax

Researchers say they have unraveled tale of object supposed to have marked his landing.

February 19, 2003|Carol Pogash | Special to The Times

With flyaway white eyebrows and a scowl on his face, he charged that the historians were wrong in depicting his grandfather as a wholehearted booster of the plate. In fact, Dr. Bolton had doubts about the plate, until a professor of electrochemistry at Columbia University declared it to be the real thing, the grandson said. Brower was even more outraged, he said, that family members had not been interviewed and that none of the researchers (one of whom has since died) had read a biography of his grandfather. "You should be ashamed of yourselves," he scolded.

He recalled a few fond memories of the plate as well, especially the day when Bolton "brought in this big package wrapped in newspaper." He recalled his grandfather saying he thought the plate was authentic, "but it could easily be a fraud."

Historian James Spitze deftly interjected a note of diplomacy. The research, he insisted, "should not reflect in any negative way on professor Bolton," whom he described as a true academician who translated original Spanish and Italian documents as part of his own research into early America. The story, Spitze insisted, "is not about Dr. Bolton, it's about the fake plate of brass."

But Bolton's public statements show that his enthusiasm eventually got the better of him and he wholeheartedly endorsed the plate as the genuine article, the investigators concluded.

Marine historian Edward P. Von der Porten, one of the authors of an article in the current California History journal, described the conspirators and their motives. George Haviland Barron, who wrote the text of the fake plate, had been curator of California history at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Other participants included an inventor/art critic, an art dealer/restorer, and G. Ezra Dane, said to be a prominent member of the California Historical Society and of the Clamper organization.

Motive Suspected

Von der Porten and colleagues point out that Barron may have had more than just a chuckle in mind when creating the plate. He is said to have hated the Bancroft's director, blaming him, in part, for Barron's having been forced out of his job at the De Young Museum.

The plate's authenticity was cast into doubt many times over the years. In the 1970s, as its supposed 400th birthday approached, Dr. James D. Hart, then head of the Bancroft Library, initiated an elaborate series of tests on it.

Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and at the Research Laboratory for Archeology and the History of Art at Oxford University found the copper content of the plate to be unlike anything previously attributed to the Elizabethan era. Further, they disclosed that it had not been hammered, the practice in the 1500s, but had been rolled, a modern technology.

Yet the mystery remained: Who perpetrated the hoax, and why?

The crucial break came in December 2001, when the historians discovered the notes of conspirator Lorenz Noll, the art dealer and restorer, in a box at the Bancroft Library.

The secret was revealed if not verified. Then all they had to do was connect the sepia-hued dots.

Had Bolton been a little more skeptical back in the 1930s, he might have noticed the telltale signs of a fake. The spelling was modern; the queen was referred to as Queen Elizabeth of England and not as "Elizabeth, by grace of God, Queen of England," as was the custom in the 1500s. One of the pranksters, George C. Clark, the art critic who had designed the plate, carved a "G" and "C" just above Drake's signature. Historians back then assumed the letters stood for "Captain General," a term not in use in the Elizabethan era.

Most telling, the Clampers had written the initials of their group, ECV, in fluorescent paint. But one would have needed to place the plate under a black light to see the initials.

Historians still believe, however, that Drake and his men left a plate somewhere near Drake's Bay, on behalf of their country and their queen. Romantics would like to believe it will be found one day.

Said historian Von der Porten: "There is still a plate of brass out there."

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