When one thinks of fraud, the first cases that come to mind may be corrupt money managers (à la Bernard Madoff) or bankers. Businesses like Enron and WorldCom may likewise ring a bell, as well. Why are we talking about fraud on a blog about books, though? Well, sadly the book buying and selling business has not escaped instances of fraud, either. In 2012, Allan Formhals was found guilty of ten counts of fraud. But he wasn't an unscrupulous banker, he was an antiques dealer who sold books on the internet. Formhals was convicted of forging signatures in books and purveying them on eBay as the genuine article.
The Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques Unit launched the investigation in January 2011 and enlisted the Antiquarian Booksellers Association for assistance. Formhals forged a wide variety of signatures, from Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell, to J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Louis Stevenson. He would pick up books at garage sales and the local recycling center, then resell them on eBay with his phony signatures. In all, Formhals defrauded collectors of over £6,000...and that's only the amount lost by the individuals who came forward.
Provenance Pays Off
This case illustrates why it's critical for collectors to understand the concept of provenance and the importance of due diligence. As we've written before, provenance refers to the proverbial paper trail that signed books and association copies should have. In the world of rare books, a book's provenance is its chain of ownership. Investigating that chain can help rare book collectors avoid purchasing forgeries, facsimiles, and even stolen items. There are several means of establishing a volume's provenance:
- Purchase documentation: If a book has been passed to multiple owners, there should be a chain of receipts and other documents to show the chain of ownership.
- Inclusion in a catalogue: This indicates when a book was part of a specific collection, usually of a particular dealer who was in possession of the book. However, sometimes catalogues document the collections of private individuals as well.
- Marginalia: It can be easy to forge signatures, but forging someone's notes throughout the margins of a book is quite the task. Marginalia can provide useful context to corroborate a book's provenance.
- Book plates: These can be another indicator of provenance, but they shouldn't be relied upon as the only evidence of provenance; book plates can often be replicated easily.
Investigating and thoroughly documenting a book's provenance doesn't just protect you from buying fakes. A rare book's provenance also significantly impacts its value. The more certain the book's provenance, the more it can be worth in the rare book market. Meanwhile, if a previous owner had special status (making the book what's known as an association copy) that is well documented, that can also add to a book's value.
We've detailed a number of elements of provenance that are important in rare book collecting here. Things like previous ownership, signatures and inscriptions, and any association between the author and subject matter are all described in more detail.
For older books, we recommend that you look into any documentation of the restoration done to the book. Remember that any changes to the book's condition and original state can impact the market price of a book among discerning collectors. For example, people have different opinions about what rebinding a book does to its value. Be sure to find out what's been done to the book, when, and by whom. A reputable dealer will be open and honest with you about any known restoration efforts.
The most important tool you have to protect yourself is your own common sense. If you have questions or concerns about a rare book's provenance, ask the seller. After all, reputable dealers aren't in the business for single sales—they want to build lasting relationships with their clients.
A couple years back, a fan took to Twitter to ask modern-day legendary author J.K. Rowling whether or not a signature in one of her books was the real deal. Rowling offered some universally applicable advice. She tweeted back, "Reputable book dealers who verify signature & provenance your best bet. Unfortunately, lots of fakes out there."
Books Tell You Why is proud to provide a guarantee of authenticity for all of our books. If you have a question about a book's signature, be sure to check out our Reference Autographs and Signatures page. We are proud to offer the tabled author signatures, obtained in controlled environments, to assist in the authentication process of signed books.