Forged “Antique” Microscope Slides - A Lesson for Collectors

by Brian Stevenson
last updated October, 2012

Writing in 1857, Edmund Dixon declared “the preparer's art is no mere mechanical routine. He must have science to know what is worth preserving, taste to arrange it gracefully and accurately, and skill so to embalm his object as to retain its beauty for future admirers. He must have an artistic eye, a fine touch, an extensive knowledge of Nature's minutiae, and a hand practised in the manipulation of his business. Hence, it is no day-dream to predict, that, before long, collections of microscopic objects will publicly enter the lists with other articles of virtú. Choice specimens of invisibilities will rise to high fancy prices - especially after their preparers are dead. As we treasure cabinet-pictures by Teniers or the Breughels, so shall we set an exalted value on charming bits of still-life from the studios of Amadio or Stevens, on insect-portraits by Topping, on botanical groups by Bourgogne the Elder, and on other works by anonymous artists, whose names, though not their productions, still remain unknown to fame. We shall have connoisseurs, fanciers, and collectors of microscopic objects, with all the peculiarities of the genus. Indeed, I might say we have them already in the adolescent stage of their growth. But, one of these days, as my readers who live long enough will see, beautiful preparations by first-rate hands will pass through the same course of destiny as illuminated missals, majolica earthenware, Benvenuto Cellini carvings, and the like”.

Dixon’s words have definitely come true. Individual slides sometimes sell for many thousands of dollars. As with other collectible forms of art, it is not surprising that our hobby has attracted forgers.

Figure 1A illustrates two “antique” microscope slides I purchased in 2010. They were listed on eBay along with a half dozen other slides. My impression prior to the sale was that these were an interesting Edmund Wheeler slide of ancient mummy cloth, and a similar preparation that used generic, off-the-shelf wrapping papers. Upon receipt of the slides, however, comparisons with legitimate Wheeler preparations (Figure 1B) revealed substantial differences (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Figure 1. (A) Two fraudulent “antique” microscope slides. One used an Edmund Wheeler (EW) cover paper. (B) Six legitimate slides made by Edmund Wheeler. The first two and last two used machine-printed specimen labels. The middle two slides have specimen labels handwritten by Edmund Wheeler.


Figure 2. Details of forged and legitimate Wheeler microscope slides, and computer-generated printing using Edwardian Script ITC font.


Several differences are apparent when comparing the fraudulent and legitimate Wheeler slides:

Foremost, the font used on the forged slides is modern, known as “Edwardian Script ITC”. It is available on many computer programs, including Microsoft Word and Photoshop. Try it. Although superficially similar to Wheeler’s handwritten and printed labels, there are obvious differences.

The edges of the specimen labels on the forged slides are uneven, and were evidently cut by hand with scissors. Wheeler’s labels were punched out with a die, and are perfectly even.

The papering on the forged slides is very sloppy. Compare the uneven overlaps of the yellow papers on the forged slides with the professional-quality, mitered edges of Wheeler’s work.

One of the problems with collecting antique microscope slides is that almost all purchases are through the internet, generally eBay. We have to rely upon what is shown in photographs, and on the reputation of sellers. The seller from whom I purchased the forgeries is quite reputable, however. Many of us have bought genuine antiques from that person. I have to assume the seller did not realize what was being sold. So, caveat emptor. We buyers must recognize that forged microscope slides are being made and passed off as legitimate, and look more than twice at the pictures before bidding.