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Detective Work, Discoveries, and the Family Tree

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View from the Family Tree

One of my favorite new nonfiction books is Philip Mould's The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds, and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures (Viking, 2009). Mould, an art dealer in London specializing in portraits, is a regular on the BBC Antiques Roadshow. In his book, Mould presents a collection of stories ranging from discovering unrecognized masterpieces on eBay, to identifying a long missing Gainsborough landscape, to laying out the circumstances of a masterful fraud at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. As the jacket says, "the art world has never seemed quite so treacherous, so beguiling --- and so much fun."

 

Why is this book a great "read" for a genealogist? Because, at its core, it is about detective work, not to mention gathering and analyzing evidence. It relates closely to the research you and I conduct in establishing the facts around our lineages. Like Mould and his associates, we sometimes go on hunches, frequently form hypotheses, always search for primary evidence, and sometimes discredit bad research or lofty claims made by others in print or on the Internet. I also see a parallel in the way Mould describes the restoration work his colleagues conduct on paintings that have suffered from being "doctored" by amateur hands or heavily varnished over time. Conservators carefully remove overpainted layers added long after a work was completed in order to return the canvas or panel to its truest, original form. These anecdotes remind me of the work we undertake in family history, often removing layers of misinformation --- wrong dates, places, names, etc. --- that have gathered like bad varnish over time on the surface of our family history. Mould says it best, a "discovery is dependent on knowledge that transforms something formerly unrecognized into something that is understood and valued." At the New England Historic Genealogical Society and on www.AmericanAncestors.org, we are always excited to help facilitate discoveries for families and communities so that our history may be better understood and valued.

 

Wishing you all the best in 2011! Brenton

D. Brenton Simons
President and CEO
New England Historic Genealogical Society
99 - 101 Newbury Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116, USA
888-296-3447

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