Fonts and Scoundrels

Monday, July 24, 2017


Millions of leaked documents fed an international Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation that exposed offshore tax havens.

In 2016 the daughter of Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was implicated in the release of the Panama Papers: it appeared that Maryam Nawaz Sharif had been using offshore accounts to buy property in London. Pakistan’s Supreme Court opened a corruption probe in April. In response, she provided several documents meant to prove her innocence. Their validity, however, was called into question when experts noticed an unusual anachronism: Microsoft fonts.


NPR followed the case:

Investigators hired Robert Radley, a forensic handwriting and document examination expert, to analyze Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s document, known as the Nescoll/Nielsen Declaration. The document is signed and dated February 2, 2006.

Among Radley’s findings: “I have identified the type font used to produce both certified Declarations as ‘Calibri.’ However, Calibri was not commercially available before 31st January 2007 and as such, neither of the originals of the certified Declarations is correctly dated and have to have been created at some later point in time.”

The Joint Investigative Team concluded that the Trust Declaration documents presented by Maryam Nawaz Sharif “are fake and fabricated documents. These documents are decoys to mislead the Honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan, manipulate facts and camouflage truth.”


The Donation of Constantine, thirteenth-century fresco. Santi Quattro Coranati, Rome.

For centuries the Catholic Church cited the Donation of Constantine as justification for amassing vast amounts of land and power. Allegedly written by Emperor Constantine to Pope Sylvester I in the fourth century, the letter grants the pope dominion over “Rome and the provinces, districts, and towns of Italy and all the Western regions.” In what might be the most famous debunking of literary fraud, fifteenth-century Italian priest and humanist Lorenzo Valla published a fiery essay that denounced the document as fake. His proof? Historical anachronisms in the supposedly fourth-century Latin.


Valla’s response to a particularly egregious section of the Donation:

O thou scoundrel, thou villain! The same history which you allege as your evidence says that for a long time none of senatorial rank was willing to accept the Christian religion, and that Constantine solicited the poor with bribes to be baptized. You say that within the first days, immediately, the Senate, the nobles, the satraps, as though already Christians, with the Caesar passed decrees for the honoring of the Roman church! What! How do you want to have satraps come in here? Numskull, blockhead! Do the Caesars speak thus; are Roman decrees usually drafted thus? Whoever heard, of satraps being mentioned in the councils of the Romans? I do not remember ever to have read of any Roman satrap being mentioned, or even of a satrap in any of the Roman provinces.