Rare Book Crime Capers: Forgery, Theft, Murder and the Holy Grail of American Printing

January 7, 2014 | 3 books mentioned 1 9 min read

A photograph of Mark Hofmann’s the Oath of a Freeman (from Maine Antique Digest, December 1985, p. 26-A)

It has been a busy winter for talking about rare book crime, mostly thanks to one man: Massimo De Caro. The dismantling of his short-lived theft empire has been fodder for news outlets the world over, while the story of his excellent forgery of a Galileo book was just the subject of a long New Yorker piece. Separately, the United States was recently treated to its own rare book news-making event, though not of the illicit sort: the crown jewel of American printing, the Bay Psalm Book, earned some $14 million at a November auction. This all put me in the mind of an earlier tale that combined forgery, theft, and the earliest American imprint in one stranger-than-fiction saga.

On March 14, 1985, Mark Hofmann, a Utah man just starting to make a name for himself in East Coast book collecting circles, phoned Justin Schiller, a New York rare book dealer with whom he had a relationship. Hofmann confided that he may have accidentally purchased “The Oath of a Freeman” on a recent trip to New York, a claim akin to that of finding the winning Powerball ticket on the sidewalk. “The Oath of a Freeman” is the Holy Grail of United States printing. A small broadside (a single sheet of paper, not much bigger than a greeting card) it was created at the same Cambridge Press as the Bay Psalm Book, around a year earlier. Unlike that psalter, of which eleven known copies exist, the “Oath” has long been thought extinct. The Bay Psalm Book was printed in a run of some 1,700, and many of its copies were preserved on the shelves of institutions likely to keep them – the one recently up for sale was owned by Boston’s Old South Church. But the “Oath” was printed in a much more humble number, and there was no natural constituency for its preservation.

Most people who have studied the matter think the “Oath” is gone forever, so Schiller could be forgiven for reacting to Hofmann’s pronouncement with something closer to a yawn than a gasp. Anyway, with tidy regularity, people get their hands on what they assume to be valuable printed relics and bring them to rare book dealers and librarians with the hope that gold can be spun for brittle beige paper. Mostly what they find is that they own old junk. But in this case, Schiller had an established financial relationship with Hofmann – he was also getting ready to bid on his behalf at an upcoming Sotheby’s auction – and so he was obliged to take the claim more seriously than he otherwise might. Still, expectations were low; Schiller told Hofmann he would have to see the thing in person before they proceeded.

To Hofmann this was a mixed blessing. It was definitely a potential windfall, something he badly needed. On the other hand, it meant that he would have to figure out how to create something that had not existed for three and a half centuries.

There is a formal aspect to authenticating works of recently discovered art. Because provenance, one of the three pillars upon which authenticity rests, is usually lacking in found items, connoisseurship and scientific analysis have to bear most of the load. But there is also another, less formal test with found art: the nature of the finder. The person who discovered the item, or, in this case, created it, has to convince potential buyers to believe in him. The meet-cute that supposedly put him together with this great catch has to be both incredible and believable; it has to at once explain not only how he discovered it, but why no one else before him did.

All things considered, Hofmann’s story was not bad. He said he bought the “Oath” along with several other old broadsides, at the Argosy Bookstore – a Manhattan institution that had handled its fair share of bibliographic gems. A more believable Oath-find story would likely involve an estate library in hinterland South of England, but if you’re going to find the Holy Grail of American printing in the United States, the Argosy is as good a place as any. In the event, it also allowed him to create a receipt from the bookstore to show he had purchased, for $25, something with that title.

Not quite two weeks after he told Schiller of its existence, Hofmann flew to New York with his “Oath.” The book dealer examined the document and, satisfied that it was not obviously wrong, called on Michael Zinman – the country’s most important private collector of early North American imprints. Zinman looked carefully at Hofmann’s “Oath” and, though he could not point to any particular thing that was amiss, said he felt the item was too good to be true. In particular, the color of the paper looked a shade too light. Still, this could be legitimately explained in a number of ways and was far from disqualifying. Zinman’s overall pronouncement, while not positive, was at least not negative – and in the long game of authenticating a 17th century document, a chain of “not negative” is as good as one “absolutely positive.”

The next day, Schiller took the “Oath” to the New York Public Library, met with its curator of rare books, and compared the broadside with the NYPL’s Bay Psalm Book – the closest extant item from the Cambridge Press. In general, two items from the same press, printed by the same man within a year or so of one another, could be expected to have a lot of things in common. But of early Cambridge Press works, this is not necessarily true. The ink, the paper, the type – even the printer’s skill – all could have changed over the course of a matter of months. In fact, given the resources of the tiny press in the just-founded colony, inconsistency was expected. So, once again, there was nothing obviously disqualifying about Hofmann’s creation.

It was at this point that Schiller, his bookselling partner, and Hofmann discussed the next steps – and figures. Instead of the standard commission, Hofmann insisted that Schiller and his partner become part owners of the document. “That,” Schiller later recalled, “is a way to get someone committed to a project!” Indeed.

On March 28, Schiller called James Gilreath, the Americana specialist at the Library of Congress, and told him what he had. Gilreath was sent a photocopy of the “Oath” and, once he had a chance to examine it, decided it was good enough for him to go to New York to see the real thing in person. On April 5, Gilreath was put alone in a room with the document, which he scrutinized with a skeptic’s eye – also, a magnifying glass and ultraviolet light. Like the others who had looked at it, the document for the most part passed Gilreath’s muster. In fact, like Zinman before him, one of the only things Gilreath found disquieting was the shade of the paper, which he felt was not dark enough to match that of the Bay Psalm Book. As it happened, the lightness of the paper would later suggest its authenticity. The only known way to artificially age iron gall ink was to heat it, a process whose byproduct was darkening paper. So when the ink of the “Oath” appeared to be the right age, and the paper not unnaturally browned, what Gilreath and Zinman had thought was a liability looked very much like an asset.

By that point, connoisseurship had not exposed the broadside as an obvious fake, so science was up to bat. Three days after Gilreath saw it in New York, the document was sent to the Conservation and Testing Offices of the Library of Congress. Among other things, a fiber analysis of the paper and x-ray fluorescence spectrometry of the ink were conducted. Again, while it was impossible to confirm the authenticity of the “Oath,” these scientific tests ultimately “revealed no evidence that would contravene a mid-seventeenth century date for the broadside.”

It was difficult not to be optimistic. Aside from the scientific testing, other experts on 17th century documents had looked at the “Oath” while it was in Washington and come away impressed. No one could seem to put a dent in the thing. On May 8, less than two months since Hofmann “found” it at the Argosy, a representative of the Library of Congress phoned Schiller to ask after the terms of sale, and provenance. And that’s when the trouble started. There was no provenance to speak of because Hofmann’s “Oath” was about as old as a ripe banana. Worse yet, Hofmann had given Schiller orders not to reveal his name to potential buyers. Couple this with a $1.5 million price tag and the Library of Congress was spooked. As it happens, the provenance issue is not one that is meant to guard against forgery as much as it is against bad title. The 20th century saw a lot of transactions of works of art between parties neither of which owned the item, so public institutions are leery of buying things without knowing for sure who the rightful owner is. The Library of Congress passed.

Mark Hofmann, for his part, was smart to insist his name be kept out of the discussion, even if his anonymity is what partially kept the Library of Congress from buying the document. Salt Lake City was far away from the East Coast, but it had telephone lines – and a few well-placed calls to Utah would reveal the fact that Hofmann had made something of a cottage industry of “finding” previously unknown documents and exchanging them, for many dollars, to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.

Undaunted, Schiller next offered the “Oath” to the American Antiquarian Society – the next logical place to go. Aware of the Library of Congress’s scientific evaluation, the AAS had its own experts examine the document. They ultimately came to a similar conclusion: it could not be proven to be a fraud. But like the LOC, the society had its reservations, and so lowered the offer considerably, to $250,000 (with the assumption that they might be able to go as high as $750,000). That ended the discussion. And though no one yet knew it, it also ended the life of Hofmann’s creation as a salable property – not because the “Oath” was exposed as a forgery, but because events in Utah overtook the authenticity discussions.

On October 15, 1985, seven months after he first phoned Schiller with his news, Hofmann murdered, with homemade bombs, Kathleen Sheets and Steve Christenson. Up to his neck in debt, he had decided the best way to keep Salt Lake City creditors off his tail while he waited on a financial windfall was to stall and distract them with mayhem. Alas, the next day another of his bombs, meant for someone else, blew up his car. While he was in the hospital, police searched his house and discovered not only the equipment necessary to make the bombs, but also what he had used to construct so many of the forgeries he had sold, or was planning to sell, to collectors, dealers, and institutions.

It is interesting to speculate about what would have happened if either the Library of Congress or the American Antiquarian Society had agreed to a purchase. Hoffman later said it would not then have been necessary for him to kill anyone, but that’s the hindsight of a sociopath – and one who, it should be noted, had a naïve understanding of the pace at which money is paid out by large institutions. As it turns out, making even a near-perfect copy of the most important item in American bibliographic history is not a good way to get quick cash. Still, as testament to how well-made it was, the question of authenticity outlasted even these events. Hofmann’s “Oath” was still being tested a year after it was clear not only that Hofmann was a bombmaker but, more damning still, that he claimed to have found yet another copy of the “Oath.”

Much of the information in this piece came from the efforts of James Gilreath. As an Americana specialist at the Library of Congress, he was not only one of the first folks to examine the broadside in 1985, but he wrote about his experience, and encouraged others to do so, in a 1991 collection he edited called The Judgment of Experts. I sometimes assign parts of this work for a class I teach on rare book crime. But what is never made clear in this otherwise excellent book is whether Gilreath, who had worked at the Library of Congress since 1974, was already stealing rare books from that library’s collection when he went to New York to help authenticate Hofmann’s “Oath.”

The fiction writer in me likes to imagine it so: a rare book thief, called upon to authenticate what he has reason to believe is a genuine “Oath,” is left alone in a room with the document and exchanges it for another version he made from the photocopy. The rest of the story writes itself. The nonfiction writer in me will note only that the federal criminal indictment of Gilreath  – issued almost exactly eleven years after Hofmann started serving his life sentence in a Utah prison – suggests that the Americana specialist’s thefts began only in the early 1990s. Of course, my experience with federal indictments is that they are fairly conservative on such things.

Whenever Gilreath began stealing from the Library of Congress, we can be sure he only stopped in 1997 when he tried to sell a stolen French translation of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to a Boston bookseller. Later indicted for stealing five items valued at more than $1,000, and another seventeen valued at less than that, he pleaded guilty to two federal counts. In 1998, one of the last years of the fairly permissive era of punishing people who steal our cultural heritage, Gilreath was given five years probation and fined $20,000 – a debt not due to be fully paid until 2018.

For the sake of a story, it is tempting to say that this was an episode when one of America’s greatest print forgers crossed paths with one of America’s greatest rare book thieves – but only part of that statement is true. Gilreath was not much of a thief, even by the standards of insiders. And this, as it happens, coincides nicely with the story of Massimo De Caro, a man who pulled off a good forgery but who is, by any standard, a mediocre thief. But that is the way it often goes with rare book thieves, especially those with inside access, who too often confuse having keys to the place with being clever. They don’t realize that stealing the books is easy; turning them into money and not getting caught is hard.

is Curator of Law Rare Books at the University of Illinois College of Law. He is the author of two nonfiction books, the most recent of which, Thieves of Book Row: New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. He teaches a class at Illinois called “Rare Books, Crime & Punishment.”

One comment:

  1. Wow, a very interesting read. I live in the realm of art history, where forgery is all too common. I am amazed no one thought to inquire how on earth Argosy managed to overlook this supposed holy grail of early printing. The 1980s was a time in which one could still manage to find great stuff lying around in stacks of prints, but not at Argosy, unless I am mistaken (I was five in 1985 and far more interested in The Very Hungry Caterpillar).

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *