The true scam artists: Literary swindlers and their bogus works are a source of endless fascination
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 June 2003)

Bookish people, appalled as anyone else by ordinary crime, nevertheless will often admit to a grudging admiration for the grifters, scammers, falsifiers and forgers who have done their best to corrupt the libraries of the world with fraudulent first editions, counterfeit manuscripts, and even allegedly ancient poetry they wrote themselves. No one considers these rogues innocent, but you have to admit that their trade requires knowledge and imagination as well as criminality. Besides, exposing them provides great pleasure for honest scholars.

Thomas J. Wise and Harry Buxton Forman, two Victorian gents who together invented a new form of bibliographic hoax, illustrate the point. Their chicanery was based on the fact that the first edition of a great author's first book usually brings the highest price. What, they asked themselves, if a dealer could offer something still earlier, a kind of pre-first-first? Collectors, they rightly predicted, would fight for the privilege of owning such a prize.

Wise and Buxton Forman developed a formula. Take a highly collectible author who is safely dead, say Elizabeth Barrett Browning, determine when Sonnets from the Portuguese ("How do I love thee? Let me count the ways") first appeared, and then print a plausible but apparently earlier version. In the 1890s they duly brought out a modest little edition, which came to be known as the Reading Sonnets because it was ostensibly printed at Reading, England. They copied the typographic style of legitimate Browning publications, used appropriate-looking paper, and gave their product an enticing date, 1847, three years before the earliest true edition.

They understood that sophisticated collectors demand scholarly proof, so they prepared the market by inserting into otherwise legitimate publications a few false references. They also knew that collectors love a good story, so Wise concocted an anecdote about receiving a cache of 10 or 12 copies from an old gentleman who had known Mary Russell Mitford, an author who was Elizabeth's friend and correspondent. Mitford was dead by the time of the forgery. So was Robert Browning, who might otherwise have been consulted by a careful buyer.

Wise and Buxton Forman profitably inserted into the market at least 36 copies of their fake pamphlet. Over the years they found similar ways to use the work of Tennyson, Coleridge, George Eliot and many others, turning out about 100 false limited editions. They were finally exposed when two scholars, John Carter and Graham Pollard, wondered why these privately printed works were never signed, and why they were all in such fine condition. Carter and Pollard eventually discovered that the forgers had used a type face that appeared old but contained minute differences, proving it was manufactured after the printed dates on the books.

Chemical analysis showed that the old-looking paper was also relatively recent. By 1934, when Carter and Pollard published their evidence, Buxton Forman was long dead. Wise tried in vain to defend himself and then fell silent till his own death in 1937.

Richard Landon, director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, tells their story and a dozen similar tales in the catalogue to a fascinating exhibition, Literary Forgeries and Mystifications, which opens tomorrow at the Fisher as part of the American Library Association meetings in Toronto. This year the rare books and manuscripts section of the conference focuses on the question of authenticity, a special interest of Landon's for three decades. His private collection on this subject includes hundreds of items, from books about various swindles to examples of the bogus publications. (Having become part of literary history, the Wise-Buxton forgeries are themselves highly collectible as authentic fakes.) In a paper he's presenting to his fellow scholars, Landon gives those rogues their due: He notes approvingly that they were both collectors and used their ill-gotten gains to buy rare books. Real ones.

The exhibition also shows the work of James Macpherson, who announced in the 1760s that he had collected and translated from Gaelic the work of a great third-century Scottish bard, Ossian. Macpherson did incorporate some old poems but actually wrote most of the material himself. At the time there were those who found his story questionable (he didn't fool Samuel Johnson for a minute) but others welcomed Ossian as a great ancient writer, comparable to Homer. Ossian became so popular that his books went into 10 languages and influenced the development of romanticism, particularly in France and Germany. He may have been the greatest bardic poet who never lived.

Landon skates toward mild controversy when he includes Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. It's true that more than a trace of fraudulence clings to this book. The publisher represented it as an anonymous eyewitness account of the bubonic plague of 1665, which occurred when Defoe was about five years old. Defoe described what he couldn't possibly have seen, but he wasn't quite the Jayson Blair of the 1720s. Standards differed in those days, the line between fiction and non-fiction was vaguer than it is today, and customers were forgiving if provided with a good read. Recent reference books, with admirable delicacy, sometimes apply the phrase "partly factual" to The Plague Year; journalists consider it a pioneering work of narrative reporting. Still, Defoe's reputation is now in play, as they say on the stock market. Until recently he was said to have produced some 500 works, from books to pamphlets, but recent scholarship has brought his output down to something like 200.

The subject of fraudulent manuscripts and books will always require attention. Recent decades have brought us diaries not written by Hitler and Jack the Ripper, a plethora of inauthentic documents of early Texas, and some Daniel Boone letters that would surprise Boone. Wherever the attention of scholars and collectors turns, fabricators eventually follow.

Their motives, the record suggests, are often more than merely financial. Some want to make scholarly reputations by inventing material that they can then claim to have uncovered. Others, apparently, create elaborate deceptions for the perverse joy of believing themselves more ingenious than conventional scholars. The fakers are indeed often clever, sometimes too clever. Of course, it's only the failures we know about. As Richard Landon rightly says, "the most successful are those we haven't yet detected."

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