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Book Crooks

As obsessions go, book collecting ought to be one of the more innocent. I caught the bug as a kid, with the fairly broad-based ambition to collect any book published before 1860, figuring that anything that old must be rare. This first collection mounted to ten or eleven books, two of them Bibles, and starred a spineless tenth printing (1856) of Dream Life by Ik Marvel, which is probably still lying around somewhere. Since then, I’ve gone through several off-and-on phases of bibliophily, sufficient to learn that it isn’t a sport for the impecunious or anyone living in physically confined circumstances. I’ve also learned that, like less innocent obsessions, it can draw you in – seriously.

I’m talking here, you understand, about collecting rare books, not merely accumulating books in general. There is a distinction to be made. The true book collector develops (or is born with) a passionate yearning to possess certain volumes for particular reasons: first editions, copies signed or inscribed, associated documents, manuscripts and so forth. His rationale is often obscure, even to him; but it is intensely, sometimes overwhelmingly, powerful. It can lead him (and it is usually him – there are comparatively few woman book collectors) into some very strange actions.

Consider, for example, the case of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792– 1872). Heir to a fortune based on Manchester textiles, Sir Thomas devoted his life – and, willy-nilly, his family – to book collecting. His mania was so profound that by the time he was 28 he was in debt, and never thereafter out of it. Spending at the rate of four or five thousand pounds a year (at a time when even a gentleman could live on a few hundred), he eventually piled up 50,000 printed books, 60,000 manuscripts and a vast array of other literary flotsam ranging from maps to portraits. At the height of his passion, he declared: ‘I wish to have one Copy of every Book in the World!’ By the time of his death he had made a fair stab at it. What this meant to Lady Phillipps can only be conjectured, but she is on record as having complained that she was ‘booked out of one wing and ratted out of the other’.

Apart from sending several hapless book dealers into premature insolvency (one went to debtor’s prison because Sir Thomas failed to pay him), Phillipps does not appear to have resorted to crime to build his collection. The same cannot be said of his son-in-law James Orchard Halliwell, also a collector, who stole manuscripts from the Bodleian (and eloped with Phillipps’s daughter, so alienating him that he cut him out of his will). It is possible that had Halliwell resisted temptation he might have inherited all those books and somehow forestalled their enormously protracted dispersal – sales were still going on a hundred years after Sir Thomas’s death. In any event, history is studded with famous book thieves, collectors all, ranging from Pope Innocent X to Catherine de Medici, who is supposed to have stolen a whole library.

In a way more typical, if in the end equally successful, was the Florentine scholar Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone, Count Libri Carrucci della Sommaia. Count Libri, as he is more economically known, has been described as ‘one of the most talented and nefarious figures of the nineteenth century’. A brilliant young mathematician, his work on numbers theory brought him fame, but in 1830, charged with revolutionary activities, he was forced to flee to France. There, his academic career flourished, and he undertook to publish a history of Italian science. He had, however, a taste for personally possessing original sources, and the disorderly state of French libraries at the time made his collecting activities remarkably easy. He managed to get himself appointed Inspector of Libraries, which gave him official access to dozens of collections, many stocked with items originally seized from noble libraries during the French Revolution. Hundreds of rare books and manuscripts, including Books of Hours and even some Leonardo sketches, fell into his eager hands; by 1847 it is estimated that he had a collection of more than 40,000 volumes, most of them rare and few come by honestly.

In 1848, however, disaster struck. Revolution swept France, Libri’s sponsors in government lost their jobs, and he learned that a warrant was about to be issued for his arrest. (He had been selling off his collection without always taking care to remove library stamps first.) Packing up eighteen large trunks with books and manuscripts, he made for London, where he was welcomed and treated as a hero. France was now forbidden territory; convicted in absentia, he was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. But he still had his books – those he hadn’t already sold – and England had collectors willing to buy them. Two auctions in 1861 brought considerable sums – from Sir Thomas Phillipps, among others – although not as much as Libri had hoped. Part of the problem was fakery, for Libri was more than just a thief. In addition to selling books he didn’t own, he fabricated bindings, forged manuscripts and gave misleading descriptions in the auction catalogues. But though there were complaints, the books were irresistible, stolen or not. Collectors desperate to collect are capable of extraordinary acts of belief – or delusion.

An illustration of just how extraordinary is the achievement of one Dennis Vrain-Lucas, probably the greatest literary forger the world has ever seen. His principal victim was Michel Chasles, a mathematics professor at the Sorbonne, who had like Libri made a name for himself as a historian of science. Over the course of ten years Vrain-Lucas created, using old paper stolen from Paris libraries and hand-made ink, tens of thousands of fake documents, more than 27,000 of which Chasles bought. The forger began plausibly, with a purported letter from Pascal establishing the fact that he, not the Englishman Newton, had been the first to come up with the idea of gravity. As a loyal Frenchman, Chasles was thrilled by the letter, and asked for more. Vrain-Lucas obliged, moving on with letters and documents from great scientific names (Descartes, Galileo, Newton) to such literary luminaries as Rabelais, and then into rather less credible territory – Louis XIV, Alexander the Great, Shakespeare, St Luke, Sappho, Charlemagne, Socrates, Virgil and Plato. Chasles eagerly bought a letter from Cleopatra to Caesar, a note from Lazarus to St Peter, and even a chatty screed from Mary Magdalene to the King of Burgundy. All of them were written in modern French, which at least made them easy for Chasles to read, if he did. By the time Vrain-Lucas was found out, the professor had spent between 140,000 and 150,000 francs (roughly £200,000 today) on spurious manuscripts and books, and was still maintaining their authenticity. There is a minority school of thought that says nobody could be quite that stupid – Chasles himself must have been in on the con. Whatever the truth of the matter, Vrain-Lucas went to prison.

While there is something inescapably funny about gullibility on this level, the numerous book collectors caught out by a more complicated and long-running forgery scam involving rare nineteenth-century pamphlets may be pardoned for failing to see the joke. Described by one of the men who unmasked it as ‘the most ingeniously conceived, the best executed, and the most successful fraud in the history of book-collecting’, it took place at a time when fashions in collecting were undergoing a radical change. Previously, collectors had tended to prize incunabula (books printed before 1500), illustrated manuscripts and the like, scorning modern authors; in the 1880s, they began collecting works by great contemporaries, from Keats and Shelley to Tennyson and Browning. First editions were suddenly the thing, especially such rare items as pamphlets or unknown early printings. Moreover, there was a vogue for building libraries, particularly among newly rich merchants and industrialists in Britain and America. It was a situation tailor-made for the talents of two exceptionally unlikely fraudsters, Thomas J. Wise and Henry Buxton Forman.

Why unlikely? Well, both men were collectors, with fine libraries – Wise’s Ashley Library was regarded as the best privately owned collection in England. Both were extremely well-known in bookish circles, having published authoritative bibliographies of such figures as Wordsworth, Swinburne, Byron and Browning (Mr and Mrs). Both were, in short, pillars of the bibliophilic establishment, and the idea that they might have involved themselves in shady dealings was – then and for forty years to come – literally inconceivable.

It was in the early 1890s that certain unknown pamphlets began turning up in salerooms and the hands of collectors – as a rule rich collectors. What they had in common was their extreme rarity and absolute desirability. Which serious collector would not want to possess, for example, a little octavo of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese dated 1847 – when the first known printing of the sonnets was in her Poems (1850)? Or a separate printing of poems by George Eliot dated 1869 whose first edition was believed to be 1874? And there were more, some sixty in all, by Ruskin, Dickens, Matthew Arnold, Swinburne, Tennyson, Thackeray, Wordsworth, Robert Louis Stevenson and others.

The pamphlets looked authentic enough, but looks alone would not have sold them to collectors who, for all their obsessiveness, were not easily fooled. And the prices the pamphlets brought could be substantial, in some cases as much as £100 each (equivalent to about £7,000 today). This is where the crooked genius of Wise and Buxton Forman showed itself. They were, after all, the experts. They chose plausible subjects, never attempting to print original material but simply digging out pieces published in magazines or in later collections and issuing them separately, often predating them. With some care, they slipped copies into the market by offering them directly to eager collectors – particularly American millionaires – at a rate calculated to minimize suspicion and maintain value. Most cleverly of all, they used their own bibliographies and connections in the collecting world to validate their productions. If the distinguished bibliographer of William Morris (H. Buxton Forman) told you that for complicated reasons a previously unknown printing of Sir Galahad: A Christmas Mystery had been found and might possibly be purchased (or swapped – Forman was keen on swaps, for real rare books that his library lacked), who would argue? Wise even managed to convince Robert Browning that the phoney copy of his wife’s Sonnets was genuine.

There were a few doubts expressed. In 1898 a bookseller noted how odd it was that although Tennyson’s Last Tournament was so rare that it sold for $300, every Tennyson collector of note appeared to have a copy. Not until the 1930s, however, was a serious challenge mounted, by which time it is estimated that the fraudsters had gained a total profit of between ten and thirty thousand pounds. Two scholarly book dealers, John Carter and Graham Pollard, by means of close analysis of typefaces and paper, were able to establish that the pamphlets were fakes. Forman was by then dead; Wise flatly denied the accusations, and then chose dignified (or sullen) silence until his death in 1937. His standing in the book community was still so high that in both the US and Britain supporters rallied to his cause, but the evidence was damning, and with further investigation since has become even stronger. Wise’s own Ashley Library (enhanced, it later developed, by thefts from the British Museum) was, on the other hand, indisputably magnificent. Following his demise it went for a nice round £66,000. That the fake books themselves today sell as amusing rarities at prices up to ten times their original cost only goes to show the perversity of book collectors.

Writing about the forgeries a few years ago, Dwight MacDonald noted that Wise exploited the first-edition mania all the more successfully ‘because he himself was as violently infected with it as any American millionaire’. This probably holds true for most of those found at the intersection between crime and literature. Love of books clearly has its pathology, and it is almost certainly related to the compulsion that some humans share with pack-rats. Fortunately this tendency is not so pronounced in most of us as it was in the case of an American biblioklept named Stephen Blumberg, who over a period of twenty years managed to steal – and keep – more than 23,000 rare books from 268 libraries before being nabbed. He served four and a half years in prison. On his release, he claimed to have learned his lesson. Perhaps he did, because when he was next arrested it was not for stealing a book, but an antique doorknob. As a sometime book collector, I find this poignant.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 22 © Charles Elliott 2009

About the contributor

Charles Elliott has been (honestly) involved with books for most of his life – reading them, writing them, editing them (see Slightly Foxed No.9) and even buying them.

The authority on Sir Thomas Phillipps is A. N. L. Munby, whose five volumes of Phillipps Papers were wonderfully mined by Nicholas Barker to produce an engaging biography of the great man, Portrait of an Obsession (1967). The crimes of Thomas J. Wise and Henry Buxton Forman were first revealed in An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets by John Carter and Graham Pollard (1934; second edition 1983) and a sequel by Nicholas Barker and John Collins (1983). Much in these accounts is technical, but anyone bookish will find them irresistibly fascinating.

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