They’re the most famous photographs of fairies ever … and one of the most famous paranormal hoaxes ever as well – fooling the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, numerous “experts” and many members of the general public. They’re the Cottingley Fairies photographs and, to show that interest in them hasn’t faded, two of the five sold recently at auction for prices far above what was anticipated. What continues to make these fakes so fascinating?
The story and the photographs are just over 100 years old, yet the mystery and trickery behind them was not solved until the 1980s. In 1917, cousins Frances Griffiths, age 9, and Elsie Wright, age 16, often played in a stream in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire. When told not to go back, they claimed they often saw fairies there and, to prove it, Elsie took her father’s Midg 1 quarter-plate camera – a falling or drop-plate camera with a range of up to 12 feet – and returned a short while later with something for her father to develop. The picture showed Frances posed with what appeared to be four dancing fairies. While he didn’t believe this one or a later picture of a gnome, Elsie’s mother did.
The mother gave the photos and the negative plates to a member of the local Theosophical Society, who took them to a photography expert who believed them to be real. As they were made public through lectures and publications, they caught the attention of Sherlock Holmes creator and noted spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose interest further legitimized them. Experts from Kodak examined them and, while stopping short of saying they believed in fairies, felt confident the photos were not faked.
Under pressure in 1920 to produce more fairies, the girls, using a camera with secretly marked plates, took three more photographs. Reactions to the entire set were mixed, which is to say there were still quite a few people who actually believed the girls had captured images of real fairies. They made no more and people on both sides attempted to prove their belief or disbelief … until 1983 when the cousins admitted the pictures were of cutouts of fairies. Even then, they still argued that they had really seen fairies and Frances steadfastly maintained that one fairy in the last photo was real.
Various collections of originals, prints, photographic plates, the two cameras, letters and other materials have sold at auctions over the years. Last week, two originals went up for sale at Dominic Winter Auctioneers in East Gloucestershire, England. “Iris and the Gnome,” a photograph of Elsie (their real names were not used from early on to protect them) was expected to sell for £700 - £1,000 ($900-$1300), as was “Alice and the Fairies,” a photograph of Frances. To everyone’s surprise, “Iris and the Gnome” sold for £5,400 ($7,098) and “Alice and the Fairies” went for a whopping £15,000 ($19,718).
Perhaps the fairies are real after all.