Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Most Famous Book Auction Never to Be Held

Last week, for the first time, I obtained some books for my collection at a book auction. Up until now, I’ve always either bought my books retail or received them as generous gifts. Buying at auction -- even just attending an auction -- was quite a different experience: sometimes frustrating, sometimes heart-racing, always eye-opening. Before going, I picked up some practical tips (always sit in the back) as well as some buying tips (it’s easier to outbid a dealer than a collector, since the dealer will almost always drop out while the lot is still under retail value). Nearly 300 lots went in about two hours; I ended up with one lot of two books, but it was well worth it.

Rather than write about those books this week, however, the experience got me thinking about another, much more infamous book auction: the Fortsas Auction of 1840. The Fortsas Auction was famous because of the literal uniqueness of every item in its catalog; it was infamous because the event never took place. It is known to most book historians as The Fortsas Bibliohoax.

Here’s a succinct account of the story from the “Hoax Archive” at the Museum of Hoaxes:

Jean Nepomucene Auguste Pichauld, Comte de Fortsas, was a man with a singular passion. He collected books of which only one copy was known to exist [his fake silhouette is shown here]. If he ever discovered that one of the volumes in his library had a duplicate anywhere in the world, he would immediately dispose of it. So when he died on September 1, 1839 he possessed only fifty-two books, but each of them was absolutely unique.

His heir, not sharing the old man's passion for book collecting, arranged for an auction to sell off the library, and so a catalog of this small but highly unusual collection was mailed to bibliophiles throughout Europe [title page shown below]. The auction, the collectors were told, was to be held in the offices of Mâitre Mourlon, notary, 9 rue de l'Église, in Binche, Belgium on August 10, 1840.

When Europe's librarians and intellectuals received the catalog, they could scarcely believe their eyes. The books would have been valuable even if duplicate copies had existed, but the fact that each one was unique made them priceless. The catalog contained detailed descriptions of the books, as well as numerous comments. A typical comment read:

A manuscript note attributes this work to Pere Felix Grebard, private secretary to the noted Huet, bishop of Avranches. This Pere Grebard is likewise the author of a very rare tragedy, 'La mort de Henry le grand,' which I have had in my collection, but of which I rid myself, having learned that Mons. J. Ketele of Audenarde had another copy of it.

On August 9, the day before the auction, the collectors descended on Binche like a pack of vultures. The Belgian government even sent an official representative, believing that the collection was so valuable that it should be bought in its entirety and kept in the country.

But only disappointment greeted the hopeful buyers. Try as they might, they could not locate any street named "rue de l'Église" in the town of Binche.

Their spirits sunk even lower when they read an announcement in the newspaper informing them that the town of Binche had decided to purchase the entire collection for its public library.

Disheartened, some of the collectors returned home, but others stayed, curious to view the unique books in their new home. But although they searched and searched, they couldn't find the library anywhere. Only then did it gradually dawn on them. There was no Binche public library. There was no Comte de Fortsas. The entire auction and list of unique books had been an enormous, elaborately designed hoax.

The man behind the hoax was a local antiquarian named Renier Hubert Ghislain Chalon (1802-1889). The planning that had gone into the deception was incredible. He had carefully researched the interests of all the major bibliophiles in Europe in order to ensure that they would make the long and fruitless trek to Binche. And he had done all this merely for the sake of a practical joke.

The hoax proved not to be a total loss for its victims. The catalog they had received itself became a highly coveted collector's item. Within a few decades it had more than quadrupled in price.

There was such demand for the catalog, that the printer of the original catalog, M. Hoyois, decided to publish a few more copies of it. However, Chalon forbade him from doing so, leading to a legal battle between the two men. This dispute is described in The Bibliographer: A Journal of Book-Lore (June, 1884):

In 1855, M. Hoyois issued a prospectus for a reimpression of the Fortsas Catalogue, with the orders and correspondence of various bibliophiles with regard to the supposed sale, and a facsimile of a letter from the Count de Fortsas. M. Chalons forbade this re-impression, and a division arose between the friends. M. Chalons took legal measures to prevent M. Hoyois from reprinting the Catalogue, and also influenced the Societe des Bibliophiles Belges to refuse their subscription to the book.

The University of Delaware Library also has a brief account of the hoax that includes a short bibliography of works related to it. In August 2008, to celebrate the anniversary, Boston book-collector and librarian Jeremy Dibbell, at PhiloBiblios, marked the occasion by writing a blog post about the event and setting up a LibraryThing shelf of the Comte’s precious books. If they don’t exist in reality, I suppose, they can at least be seen in virtual reality.

Which brings us to this week’s book. This is a copy of the limited edition, 1986 revised and newly annotated version of bibliography, historian, and Sherlock Holmesian Walter Klinefelter’s The Fortsas Bibliohoax, of which only 378 copies were printed. The book was originally published by the Carteret Book Club of Newark in 1941 as a limited run of 128 copies, printed by the Press of the Woolly Whale. A reprint of 200 copies followed in 1942. The 1986 edition includes an unusually comprehensive colophon that provides a great deal of information about the book’s production: it was printed by Ward Schori of Evanston, Ilinois using artisan Rudolph Ruzicka’s Fairfield font (manufactured by Boston Linotype Composition, also of Evanston) on acid-free Brockway Text paper and bound by John LaRiviere of Chicago (whom Schori often used). Schori was a noted printer and journalist who specialized in highly-collectible miniature books from the early 1960s up until his death in 1995.

The book is bound in brown boards with a buckram spine bearing brown printed titling; in the lower outside corner of the front board there is a gilt imprint of the Fortsas family crest, which also appears on the title page (a mule treading on an open book over the motto “Secte des Agathopedes”, or “Sect of Saint Agathopus” -- Agathopus was a fourth century Thessalonican martyr who was drowned in the sea as a punishment for refusing to surrender his theological books to Roman authorities). It was published without a dust-jacket. The paper is a rich, soft stock with ragged fore-edges on every other page. It is in octavo format; the pagination runs 1-87 and begins with the usual preliminaries (a dark brown fly conjugate with the front pastedown and bearing a map of Belgium and description of Binche at the time of the Fortsas Auction; a blank; frontispiece illustration of the Comte de Fortsas in his bathrobe, reading a book in his library; title page with copyright information on the verso; and half-title). At the back is the colophon, a blank, and the same style of fly-conjugate-to-pastedown as at the front.

The contents provide, in a combination of reference work and historical narrative, most of the information a reader would need for a complete picture of the infamous prank. These include an account of the auction (copiously footnoted with enriching contextual and explanatory material), an annotated reprint of the auction catalog, and a concluding annotated bibliography of works (in a variety of languages) related to the event. Particularly fascinating, of course, is the reprint of the catalog and the accompanying annotation -- it offers a glimpse into the peculiar, particular, and often times ridiculously esoteric topics of interest, obsession, and even scandal for European book-collectors in the mid-nineteenth century. The bibliography of relevant works was prepared by Weber Devore. Klinefelter’s research on the auction was assisted by printer-publisher Gary Hantke and poet-printer Emerson Wulling. The frontispiece illustration of the Comte was done by Roberta Goforth and first appeared on the cover of the poetry chapbook Stepladder (Galesburg: Knox College, 1953).

In his book, Klinefelter details the mania that gripped a number of the more celebrated buyers who descended on Binche for the auction; he also shows how their deep sense of competitiveness was a product of both their keen desire, but also their high connoisseurship. It was a testament to the orchestrators of the bibliohoax that they were able to dupe so many extremely intelligent bibliophiles with their catalog. As I looked around the bidders at the auction I attended this week, I couldn’t help but wonder how such a prank would go over today.

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