Juicy: theft, forgery, and murder in the rare book collecting world

The Millions has a nice, juicy lunchtime read for you. Imagine how the blood and guilt soaked into the tweed. Or the mission impossible theme, but slowed down and played mostly by a string quartet.

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.

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