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>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 Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750
  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500

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