A Letter from America XXII: More Fakes, in Maryland This Time (March)

From the Rare Book Review

Fakes and forgeries have always been a plague on the book and manuscript world; more often the latter as books are rather hard to fake in a satisfactory way, and forgers of printed material usually stick to broadsides. In truth we are comparatively lucky; a field such as Chinese porcelain has to contend not only with modern fakes but ones done hundreds of years ago as well. Rising values have inevitably brought fraud in their wake, and modern technology has made it easier to produce a plausible facsimile. Last fall a most interesting fake came my way which illustrates some of the problems we now face.

            My first rule of bidding at auction has long been to view beforehand anything of interest to me (my second rule is to determine my bidding limit prior to the sale and stick to it, an attitude shared by surprisingly few people). Press of business kept me from doing so in my incident last fall, for which I paid by wasting more time than it would have taken me to view in the first place. Other than that it cost me nothing, since the auction firm honorably stood by their terms of business and revoked the sale.

The fake made its implausible appearance at a general auctioneer in rural Delaware, on the Maryland line way down on the Eastern Shore, a firm whose main business is used farm equipment. However, they also do antiques, and ended up handling the estate of a local man who “went to every house sale around here for the last forty years.” Besides the vast amounts of bric-a-brac there were a lot of works of local history, and amidst them what was asserted to be  a copy of the second pamphlet to promote the Maryland colony, A Relation of the Successful Beginnings of the Lord Baltemore’s Plantation in Mary-Land (London, 1634). The enterprising tractor auctioneer e-mailed the description of the piece to numerous book dealers a few days before the sale, too short notice for me to get there. The book was complete in the first part, but lacked the second section, “The Conditions of the Plantation.”

Now this is one rare book; the known copies are at the British Museum, the John Carter Brown Library, the Clements Library at the University of Michigan, and the Garrett Collection at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was first reprinted in 1865 by the Maryland collector Brantz Mayer, who only reprinted the first part, suggesting he was working with a (now missing) copy of Part I only. A modern facsimile reprint was made by the Maryland State Archives in 1984, which reproduced the John Carter Brown copy. However, this was somewhat reduced in size from the original. Notably, the titlepage was also reduced, but at a different percentage than the text pages.

From a scan the pamphlet looked possibly right, but what made me decide to bid was the measurement of the type block of the titlepage. Older reproduction technologies almost inevitably have a shrinkage or expansion of one or two percent, but this was exactly right, the same as the JCB copy. Any forger using the facsimile would have got this wrong, and so would any older facsimile effort – fitting in with the forty years of junk fairs. And there was the niggling thought in my mind that this was the Brantz Mayer copy. His huge book collection was scattered after his death, and it is not an unusual provenance to turn up in the United States. What a logical place for this missing copy to show up! In other words, I had successfully used my specialized knowledge to delude myself .

I set up a phone bid, and in the event got the pamphlet for $1000 with no opposition. This was of course highly ominous, and it was immediately apparent when the piece arrived that it was a fake, although carefully and cleverly done. The forgers fell down on the paper aging – always a tough point – and on the blurring of some letters in the text. But a recheck with the John Carter Brown (thanks to Richard Ring and his trusty ruler) revealed that the titlepage had been reproduced precisely the right size. I returned the piece, and the auctioneers very promptly refunded my money.            Other than feeling stupid, that was that.

The troubling thing here is that a) this forgery had to be quite modern and b) to be as good as it was, it had to be done from one of four copies, each in a highly secure institution. Caveat emptor!

– William S. Reese