Forging Ahead

by Tom Congalton

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Lately it seems like I've been overwhelmed with email offers of bad copies or reprint editions of important books with forged inscriptions by famous authors.

As a serial optimist, in the distant past I had been inclined to consider a likely looking autograph as good until proven otherwise, and for the most part this attitude was usually proven correct.

In those halcyon days (okay, they weren't really all that halcyon, but allow me at least to burnish my modest tenure in the trade with a little nostalgic lustre), most of the more obvious forgers and fraudsters were known to many professional booksellers.

A forged Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner signature was usually either too unconvincing to be seriously considered by anyone but the most gullible or incompetent, or if they began to appear in quantity, they rapidly became the subject of considerable discussion, and the source usually either identified or suspected. With the rare book market dominated by a relatively small number of professional dealers, rare book librarians, and serious collectors, most of them well-known to each other, and quick to raise the alarm, forgers and their work were mostly just a nuisance (that it is, when they weren't blowing people up to cover their tracks - see the Mark Hoffman episode), and their productions the source of only occasional embarrassment to the trade.

However, since the advent of online bookselling sites I've been forced to take rather the opposite tack. The relatively anonymous selling venues, especially online auction sites, combined with the increasingly substantial prices brought by significant literary first edition high spots, seem to have brought out every conceivable brand of fraudster, huckster, forger, and thief. These days every autograph should be considered suspect unless proven otherwise.

Booksellers and autograph dealers, although in similar professions, and often closely allied, tend to take different approaches to determining the authenticity or otherwise of an autograph. Although it grieves me to say so, the autograph dealers are probably more competent, although by no means infallible, in determining the authenticity of an autograph on a document.

By the same token I have also seen autograph dealers ignore obvious signs of in-authenticity when that same signature might appear in a book, and which might automatically raise concerns to a bookseller: an author might only sign on the title-page, might only sign their name on a diagonal, might have tiny handwriting, might always sign their last name, use only a certain color of ink - all things important to know if one is about to part with a substantial sum of money.

Here are a few things to be aware of: be afraid of any book whose value is greatly enhanced by the addition of an author's signature: books by Hemingway, Faulkner, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, or Thomas Pynchon are all automatically suspect.

Be doubly afraid if that hyper-valuable signature appears in an inexpensive reprint, in one of the author's later books that might be available inexpensively, or copies of first editions that have severe condition problems. New York state bookseller Jeff Marks refers to these books as "cheater's books." Rare is the forger who is either confident enough, or wants to make the substantial investment in a very expensive first edition in order to practice his "art." Rather, he will be more likely to buy very inexpensive reprints that can be discarded without substantial loss on those occasions when they forget in mid-sentence that "J.D. Hemingway" is not the author's given name.

Whether out of ignorance, cupidity, or culpability I cannot say, but those who have strongly suggested in the past decade that more value resides in books which have been signed with the just the author's name, rather than with inscriptions to individuals, have unwittingly (or perhaps not) played directly into the hands of the forgers, and gone a long way towards abetting their depredations. What happier news to a forger? The easiest thing to forge is a signature, with no other corroborating evidence provided by additional handwriting.

If you encounter a reprint edition whose value has been greatly enhanced by a signed-only autograph, every alarm bell should be ringing. You would probably do best to run way at a high rate of speed, or at worst, piss on the book from a very great height.

And finally, beware the dreaded Certificate of Authenticity. These might be worth the paper they are printed on, assuming one has a very desperate need of paper, but they usually send me screaming into the night, on the principle of methinks the lady doth protest overmuch. A receipt from a reputable bookseller or autograph dealer is a guarantee of authenticity, or at least of the right of return. This is not trumped by a document with embossed gold seals from someone who might disappear next week. One should be particularly skeptical when the Certificate is issued by the person selling you the autograph.

Is it possible that Thomas Pynchon might have signed and not inscribed a cheap reprint of one of his books, and that it now has found its way onto Ebay, accompanied by a bright and shining Certificate of Authenticity from someone you've never heard of, but improbably enough the signature is still authentic?

Of course it's possible. But if I've seen it first, you won't want it anyway. Probably because of the offensive staining.

This article first appeared in the October/November 2008 issue of Rare Book Review under the title "Cheaters' Books."