A H Baldwin & Sons, fifth-generation dealers in coins and medals, will be selling an unusually large collection of lead medallions, figures and pilgrim flasks mad by William Smith and Charles Eaton at the Olympia Fine Art and Antiques Fair, which opens today in west London.
Smith and Eaton - better known as Billy and Charley - were a couple of mudlarks who used to scour the Thames for valuables. By 1857, they found an easier way to meet the insatiable demand for antiquities: counterfeiting pieces using plaster of Paris moulds and acid to age the lead. Their most popular lines were knights in armour and priests with loose robes.
Timothy Millett of Baldwin & Sons, who will be selling the 'Billys and Charleys' for between pounds 45 and pounds 150, said that these forgers' greatest asset was their 'total ignorance'. As they were both illiterate, their medieval inscriptions were all the more convincing for being an entirely meaningless mix of letters and symbols.
They found a ready buyer in an antiques dealer, William Edwards, who sold the 'treasures' on to George Eastwood, an antiques dealer near the City. The story was that the pieces had turned up at Shadwell during the construction of the new dock.
But in 1858, Henry Syer Cuming, an archaeologist, condemned the Billys and Charleys as 'a gross attempt at deception'. Even though their case went through the courts, Billy and Charley escaped prosecution. Within a few years, however, divine justice caught up with them.