During the 1930s, a woman claiming to be the widow of a British Royal Flying Corps pilot sold 34 photos featuring scenes from a dramatic WWI aerial battle to a publisher for U.S. $20,000. The pics were later published in a popular book — but it was all an elaborate hoax.
The ensuing photos purportedly captured an intense aerial battle between British and German planes over Europe, featuring pilots and planes falling from the sky, close-ups of dogfights, and planes smashing into one another.
After purchasing the images, the publisher featured them in a book titled, Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot. But it wouldn't be until 1984 that the photos were definitively declared forgeries.
The story began to fall apart after the Smithsonian received a donation of materials from an American pilot, Wesley David Archer. He had flown with the RFC and went on to work in Hollywood doing special effects. Archer, we now know, had created models of all the biplanes, and then superimposed the images of the planes onto aerial backgrounds.
It was also later revealed that Gladys Maud Cockburn-Lange was actually Gladys Maud "Betty" Archer — the wife of the person who had made the donation.
The images were recently put on the auction block and carry an estimated value of $1,250 — a far cry from the initial $20,000 purchasing price.