Monday, July 16, 2012

Autograph In The Rue Morgue: A Tell-Tale Poe Forgery

By Stephen J. Gertz

The signature in question.
Poe used two styles of handwriting, a fluent script in his letters to intimate friends, and a painstakingly legible hand in his formal letters and the manuscripts he prepared for publication. Poe's is the most avidly sought of American literary autographs. Anything in his hand, signed or unsigned, commands an awe-inspiring price (Charles Hamilton, Collecting Autographs and Manuscripts, p. 116).

Hamilton's samples.

It was Pavlov's dog-time when a beautifully rebound first edition copy of Poe's Tales (1845) landed on my desk with a breathtaking slip tipped-in to one of the preliminary blanks.

The slip was addressed, To Col. Richard B. Mason / Holmes Island / Lustrins Calf., and signed, in the lower left corner, From Edgar A. Poe.

Mother of Mercy!

Then I looked closely and my salivary glands withered like grapes into raisins.

The tipped-in slip.

First, the hand that wrote the signature and that which addressed the slip are completely different, beyond those variations noted by Hamilton. The address bears little if any resemblance to samples of Poe's casual or formal penmanship. Poe did not write that address.

Authenticated examples of Poe's signature.
Note informal style at center.
 Courtesy of TomFolio.

Furthermore, it makes no sense that, if Poe had written the address, he would have used his formal and painstakingly written signature as sender. He would have likely used his informal autograph as seen above at center. Note, too, that, based upon authentic samples, when Poe wrote his formal signature he invariably added a final, usually decorative, underline. That flourish is absent from this formal autograph.

Authentic Poe letter.
Courtesy of Bauman's Rare Books.

But more than the general differences in handwriting, the weird mix of formal and informal styles on the same slip, and the absence of an underscore to the signature, there is a nearly invisible sign that this autograph was obviously monkeyed with. The lower left corner of the slip upon which  the Poe autograph is found has been washed. It is not obvious unless viewed at the proper angle in the right light. When the slip was recently photographed it was lit so that the washing would be apparent.

Detail of signature from above letter.

This copy of Tales was rebound c. 1920s by Curtis Walters of New York. That approximate date of rebinding, when the slip was likely tipped-in, provides a tantalizing possibility about the origin of this forgery. It suggests that it was the work of Martin Coneely, aka Joseph Cosey (1887-?1950).

Joseph Cosey.

At some point during the early 1920s Cosey visited the Library of Congress and stole a pay warrant signed by Benjamin Franklin dated 1786. Shortly thereafter and broke, he attempted to sell the document to a dealer. The dealer rejected it, claiming it to be a fake. Indignant, Cosey went home and carefully, after studying examples, forged Abraham Lincoln's signature and presented it to the same dealer, who bought it. Cosey felt triumphant.

Franklin, Lincoln, and Poe became his favorite subjects; Cosey had a deep affection for Poe's work. Cosey was good, very, very good. He used period ink, paper, and writing instruments. It is known that he used modern chemicals to treat paper when necessary.

I strongly suspect that this example of Poe's signature to this addressed slip was the work of Cosey, perhaps an early exercise at a time when Poe autograph and manuscript material was hot (it still is),  he was beginning to experiment with paper-treating chemicals, and curious about what he could get away with. 

Part of Cosey's genius was that when he offered his work he never claimed it to be authentic; he left it up to the buyer to decide. If the work was subsequently judged to be faked he was in the clear; it was the dealers who erred in their evaluation. I imagine that he offered this early exercise as a test to see if it would fly. It, apparently, did. At the time the unknown duped buyer (perhaps Walters, or the bookseller or collector who commissioned the binding) purchased it autograph and manuscript forensics were in adolescence, few dealers had deep experience with Poe autograph material (there was not much genuine material recorded at the time - nor now), and the quest for Poe material likely blinded those involved to err on the side of hope.

Authenticated Poe addressed envelope.

All forgers have a "tell,' something that gives them away. For Cosey, it was the simple fact that signatures evolve over time. He was appending Franklin autographs forged from samples from early in Franklin's life to documents written later when Franklin's handwriting had deteriorated. His Lincoln forgeries were revealed by "A. Lincoln" being on the same plane; genuine Lincoln signatures have "Lincoln" slightly raised above the initial "A."

Authentic Poe manuscript sample.Courtesy of Cornell University.

In the hierarchy of autograph material an author's direct signature to one their books is valued higher than a tipped-in envelope with autograph. A tipped-in "clipped" signature (the autograph excised from an original document) is valued even lower. If this tipped-in slip with autograph had been authentic it would have likely added at least $5,000 to the book. As it turns out, because of his notoriety, skill, and chutzpah, Coesy forgeries have become collectible in their own right. There remain samples not yet firmly identified, and this may be one of them.

If it can be firmly attributed to Cosey it may add $500-$750 to the book's market value.

At this point, however, what we have is a very interesting and lovely first edition of Poe's Tales with an obviously fake autograph, one that may be significant as an early example in the development of a notorious master forger.

It's certainly not the story I hoped for when I first laid eyes upon this copy of Poe's Tales. But it's still a pretty good one, a latter-day Poe tale of mystery and imagination.

1 comment:

  1. Interestingly, Cosey never really made much money from his fakes. In many cases, dealers bought them out of a sense of charity, or just to keep them off the market.


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