Tale of Two Forgers

Sometimes a curious inquirer will ask me how I know a book is not a forgery. The short answer to this question is another question: why would I, an intelligent forger, take all the time and effort to set up a historical printing press, make ink, recreate illustrations, and mimic the font of a first edition Huck Finn, when I can fake a more valuable Lincoln signature for a lot less effort? The long answer is that bibliographers have ways of checking for authenticity, just as autograph dealers do. (Actually, I guess that’s the short answer. 🙂) These methods were greatly developed and modernized in the early 20th century by two men on the trail of a forger: John Carter and Graham Pollard.


A professor of mine used to say there’s no such thing as a successful forger: you’re either successful with your forgery and therefore not considered a forger, or you’re caught as a forger, which makes you unsuccessful. Thomas J. Wise and Harry Buxton Forman, two respected bibliographers and booksellers in the early 20th century, were almost successful. In fact, their forgeries were not discovered until about 40 years later, when Forman was already dead and Wise ailing. The discovery that two of the most important bibliophiles of the age were forgers rocked the rare book world.


T.J. Wise, bibliophile and forger

T.J. Wise was best known as a book collector—his first wife divorced him because he was more devoted to his collection than their marriage. Forman was a noted bibliographer of Shelley and Keats. Their mutual love of poetry and bibliography brought the two men together. In 1887, the men used their considerable knowledge to create their first forgery, Poems and Sonnets by Percy Shelley.


The poems in this doctored volume were sourced from a Shelley biography, where they had appeared for the first time just the year before. Despite the convenient timeline, the appearance of Poems and Sonnets did not raise any alarms. The book came from a well-respected source; the poems were independently attested to be Shelley’s in the previous biography; there were no other examples of the item to compare it to for suspicion; and, shrewdly, the forgers had taken advantage of the known practice of poets to publish private, limited editions of certain works before a bigger, more official publication was produced.


Wise and Forman sold over 100 forgeries during the next fifteen years. And they got away with it. Then, in 1934, a bomb went off. This bomb was entitled An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets. (Leave it to rare book dealers to come up with the driest name possible for one of the biggest bibliographic events of the century.)

In the Enquiry, book dealers John Carter and Graham Pollard systematically demonstrated the fraudulent nature of these imprints. In some cases, they found that later versions of texts had been used in these supposedly “earlier” texts. They studied the development of the fonts used to see if they matched historically. They analyzed the chemical composition of the paper. In the end, many were proved forgeries beyond a doubt because they used paper, designs, or fonts that had not yet been invented by the stated date of publication.


Carter and Pollard traced the provenance of each fraud, which inevitably led back to Wise and Forman. As proper English gentlemen booksellers, they stopped short of direct accusations. But everyone knew what they were saying. And, more importantly, everyone knew the methods used to detect the forgers. Carter and Pollard had revolutionized the field of authentication in their systematic analysis and research of the suspected documents. This became the foundation for all later detection.


According to the Dictionary of National Biography, “Wise constantly and loudly denounced piracies and forgeries.” Today, there are collectors who specialize in the Wise-Forman forgeries, attempting to obtain any item related to the controversy. Yes, some people collect known forgeries exactly because they are forgeries. I wonder: are forgeries in other fields considered collectible?


4 Comments Add yours

  1. I don’t mean to sound like an uneducated lout, (Although that’s what I may very well be.) But; How the hell do you manage to retain such vast knowledge of books? I mean, you’re knowledgeable not only about rare books, but also about bibliographers, bindings, inks, papers, fonts, presses, and now even forgers and forgeries of books. It’s really amazing. Just sayin’

    1. Trust me, Randy, there’s plenty I don’t know. In the book world, the principle definitely applies that the more you learn, the more you realize you hardly know anything!

  2. T.J. Wise was best known as a book collector—his first wife divorced him because he was more devoted to his collection than their marriage. <~~ Well, you have to admire the man's dedication!

    The Relentless Reader

    1. And I admire your optimism!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s