Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2009 Issue

<i>The Police Blotter:</i> eBay Buyers Beware; Book Thief Sentenced to 2 Years

Ebaybev

A claimed signed first edition offered by eBay seller bev103162smith


By Michael Stillman

Ebay is an outstanding source for great bargains, but an indictment handed down by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on January 22 warns that dangers lurk here as well. Items that are inexpensive or easy to understand are fairly safe purchases. There is little risk in a reading copy of a book. Those which are more expensive, or require some expertise to identify, are riskier. Here is a case where buying cheaply on eBay without the necessary expertise has apparently proved costly for many book collectors.

According to the indictment, 47-year-old Forrest R. Smith III of Reading, Pennsylvania, forged the signatures of numerous authors on unsigned books he purchased on eBay, through library sales, bookstores and other venues. He then resold them on eBay as signed copies. The indictment claims that over 400 different eBay users purchased books they believed to be signed editions from Smith between December 2006 and December 15, 2008 (however, the frauds were believed to have started as early as 2002). For those concerned they may be victims, the account under which they were sold was "bev103162smith." Bev Smith is his wife. Smith purchased his books through a separate eBay account, "bigdaddy_books."

Smith's modus operandi, according to the indictment, was to obtain actual signatures of the authors involved. He used these to have ink stamps made of the signatures, which he would use to place forged signatures on the unsigned books. He would then advertise them on eBay as signed copies. Among the authors whose signatures he was said to have forged were Truman Capote, James Michener, Norman Mailer, Leon Uris, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, John Irving, Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, Anne Rice, Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe. The indictment, however, is based on three specific instances of wire fraud: listings of Rice's Interview with the Vampire and Capote's A Tree of Life, both on November 16, 2008, and approximately 20 books from authors including Crichton, Vonnegut, Proulx and Grisham listed on December 8, 2008. A fourth count alleges mail fraud on November 24, 2008, for shipping forged books.

The indictment states that Smith received more than $300,000 in revenue from books misrepresented as signed since March of 2002. Acting U.S. Attorney Laurie Magid stated, "Hundreds of collectors thought they were purchasing valuable books bearing the signatures of renowned authors. In reality, their appreciation for the book or author was being exploited to satisfy one man's greed."

Evidently Smith was very successful at fooling people. He had a 99% positive feedback rating on eBay, filled with comments like "honest seller." Among the very few negatives were a couple of recent complaints for failing to ship books that had been won. One suspects his failure to ship items recently won at auction is related to the just handed down indictment.

If convicted on all charges Smith faces a maximum punishment of 80 years in prison, a $1 million fine, 12 years of supervised release (which could theoretically begin when he is 127 years old), a $400 assessment, and restitution to his victims.

There is much to be said for buying bargains on eBay, but as U.S. Attorney Magid noted, "buying and selling over the internet depends on trust." As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, "trust, but verify." The internet has seemingly reduced the need for expert sellers, but it has not decreased the need for expertise. If anything, it has increased it. There must be more than a few book and autograph dealers saying, "I could have told you so." Those who lack the requisite expertise are taking a gamble when they avoid the service of an expert. You win some, or as in the alleged case of these 400 buyers, you lose some.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Doyle: Hunting Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake” Johnson. Online only auction Aug 3-14</b>
    <b>Doyle, Online only auction Aug 3-14:</b> <i>The Sportsman's Portfolio of American Field Sports.</i> 1855. Est: $600 to $900
    <b>Doyle, Online only auction Aug 3-14:</b> <i>Bishop's Birds. Etchings of Water-Fowl and Upland Game Birds.</i> 1936. Est: $200 to $300
    <b>Doyle, Online only auction Aug 3-14:</b> <i>Hunting Big Game in Far Northwest British Columbia</i>. 1904. Est: $500 to $800
    <b>Doyle, Online only auction Aug 3-14:</b> <i>Mananaland. Adventuring with Camera and Rifle Through California in Mexico.</i> 1929. Est: $400 to $600
    <b>Doyle: Hunting Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake” Johnson. Online only auction Aug 3-14</b>
    <b>Doyle, Online only auction Aug 3-14:</b> <i>Grand Canyon Trails.</i> 1924. Est: $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, Online only auction Aug 3-14:</b> <i>A Sporting Trip through Abyssinia. A Narrative of a nine months’ journey..</i> 1902. Est: $200 to $300
    <b>Doyle, Online only auction Aug 3-14:</b> <i>Hunting in Tanzania [...in Zimbabwe; ...the Sudan; ...in Botswana; ...in Ethiopia; ...in Zambia; ...in South Africa; ...in Kenya]</i>. 1991-2000. Est: $800 to $1200
    <b>Doyle, Online only auction Aug 3-14:</b> <i>Hounds and Hunting through the Ages ... with an Introduction by the Earl of Lonsdale</i>. 1928. Est: $600 to $900
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000

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