Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2004 Issue

So you want to be a Wise guy

Scribner131

Scribner's issued this catalogue of Thomas J. Wise material in 1945.


By Bruce McKinney

It can be difficult, in collecting printed material, to know what to collect. The printed universe is enormous. Whether to define collecting ambitions by subject, period, author, type, style, place, event(s), some other factor or a combination of factors is a potentially complex decision often informed by luck and frequently enhanced by suggestions and guidance from knowledgeable dealers. Certainly the best collections are focused. Ask any auction house what they do best with and they will tell you focused, single owner collections. Many, arguably most, subjects are potentially very large. Here, by comparison, is a relatively small one: collecting material relating to Thomas J. Wise. Don’t know him? Read on. He’s a good investment.

Thomas J. Wise was a great collector of the English Lake District poets and other esteemed writers of the nineteenth century. They included George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Algernon C. Swinburne, Alfred Tennyson, W. M. Thackeray, William Wordsworth, and Edmund Yates. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he certainly flattered them. Actually he went a bit further. He faked some of their early printings and then “discovered” them. Next, as an expert, he confirmed their authenticity.

He fabricated not books but early printings – pamphlets. He was an esteemed authority with a famous knack for finding previously undiscovered material. Much of the traffic in both the knowledge of these authors and their early printings passed through him or nearby and he must have experienced two feelings that when present in the same person spell risk and disaster. He could see that the market wanted more copies and he could see that the people who wanted them often didn’t have great knowledge. So he stepped across the line to forge copies to satisfy anxious and willing collectors and at the same time created a trading currency he then used to exchange his manufactured rarities for genuine items.

In 1934, while Mr. Wise yet lived, he was unmasked by John Carter and Graham Pollard in their scientifically conclusive investigation of his discoveries, a book titled “An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets.” What did him in? Watermarks and type faces. In many cases he used watermarked paper that didn’t exist as early as the printed dates on his forgeries. In other cases he used type faces that weren’t developed until later. After his death others would establish that he had a partner in his crimes: H. Buxton Forman who had the good sense to die before these forgeries were uncovered. They were always going to be caught. Mr. Wise simply lived too long.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.

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