A Letter from America VIII: Forgeries in Slave Sale Broadsides (October)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

My trip to London in June for the Book Fair was really a great success. Not only did I get to join hands with thousands and sway on the lawns of Hyde Park to the timeless cadences of "Hey Jude" at the Jubilee Concert, but I also got a free lunch at an excellent Persian restaurant across from Olympia with the staff of ABR, and I bought a real sleeper of Africana with an American twist at the Fair itself. The combination of being taken out to lunch by an editor for the first time in my life and paying for my trip with one purchase made me so elated that I almost failed to attend the shadow fair at the Commonwealth Institute. Unfortunately my sense of duty prevailed and I spent several hours looking at – Africana. In many ways, there is literally no Americana left in England . We’ve moved it all over here long since. Only the odd stick is still to be found, often concealed as – Africana. Since I have a one hemisphere mind (or more likely only one hemisphere that works) there was nothing for me. I have thought of taking up another continent bibliographically, but that is often a rash idea, like brandy before breakfast. All the things that look great turn out to be famous plugs, and you don’t realize the mistake you’ve made until its too late. The Africana that I deal in generally means something to do with slavery and the American slave trade, a hot topic in both private and institutional collecting these days, as is the larger topic of Afro-Americana. In an era when many public special collections have faltering budgets, quite a lot of funding still flows in this area, and there are some strong private buyers as well. The success of such ventures as Swann Galleries annual Afro-Americana sale are indicative of this market, although these tend to focus more on American black culture. The bigger issues of slavery in world history or the origins of the African trade in the 16th and 17th centuries have been more within the scope of the university libraries with supporting programs. Where there is a market, these days, it seems that fraud is not far behind. I cannot prove any of the assertions I make here, and so will state them in vague terms to protect myself and my publishers. However, I am convinced that forgery and fraud are being committed, and this column may at least be a warning to buyers. I believe that a person or persons are forging 19th century American slave sale broadsides and marketing them through some smaller auction firms around the United States . Slave sale broadsides have always been rare; one seldom saw them on the market even twenty-five years ago. They are as ephemeral as any such posted document, combined with the higher incidence of loss typical of the bad climate of the American South, and early destruction by opponents of slavery. A fine example of a real one (albeit at a stiff price) can be seen in the Nineteenth Century Shop’s last catalogue. As with any sale posters from the era of monotype, these broadsides tend to follow patterns of display and regular type which make them pretty easily datable within a decade to the practiced eye; fashions in typography and the evolution of type and paper add to the evidence available from the text. I have many colleagues adept in this kind of dating and thus intimately familiar with what I am talking about- this is what we’ve been training for, right? A couple of years ago I started to notice more slave sale broadsides showing up on the market, generally in mail-order manuscript and autograph auctions — the frequency alone was disturbing. They all show odd mixtures of wood display type with metal type- sometimes both would used on one line, but in different sizes, while other times a single word appears in large display type out of scale to the format. The text of these broadsides is also odd, using short phrases and sentences awkwardly broken into several uneven lines instead of the line-phrase type of set-up usual in such formats. Another unusual feature is the colored wove paper on which they are printed. Wove paper is quite possible by the late slavery era in the United States , but colored paper is very strange. And, they have kept showing up and selling with unnerving regularity. Looking at one of these broadsides, it hit me that the text was real, but not from this format. Someone, I am convinced, has taken the texts of contemporary newspaper advertisements, set them up in the grab-bag of types they probably think authentic-looking, and printed them on the colored paper, which is likely old but utterly inappropriate for such a use. These broadsides have been selling for several thousand dollars a piece. This is quite cheap if they are real, but rather expensive if they are not. Of course, as the late John Jenkins once said to me in regard to the then-budding scandal in fake Texas broadsides, "If everybody had been sure they were real they would have been worth a lot more money." The temptation of a bargain has sometimes blinded even the most astute. Indeed, like hypnosis, the best informed may be the easiest to put under. I have no inclination to emulate Carter and Pollard. It would be nice to poke into this particular little rats nest, and I hope someone will do it, but all my extra time is taken up with writing columns and giving free advice. When not doing that, I managed to sell my sleeper from the London Book Fair. That sure was real.

- William Reese