Laura is back.

The 138 index cards comprising the manuscript of Nabokov’s final uncompleted novel, The Original of Laura, are back on the market. Forum Auctions, a new London auction house, is offering the manuscript at its inaugural sale on 13 July with an estimate of £60,000 to £80,000 (about $78,000 to $103,000, depending on which day you check the falling pound sterling).

Forum’s auction page is here.

The Nabokov manuscript has a depressing sales history. It was first offered by Christie’s New York, on consignment from Dmitri Nabokov, amid much hoopla and speculation in December 2009 as the book was being published by Knopf. It then had an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. But it was bid up to only $280,000 and failed to reach its reserve.

Less than a year later in November 2010, Christie’s London offered the index cards with an estimate now lowered to £100,000 to £150,000. They did sell this time for £78,050 (about $100,000 at that time), premium included.

Soon after, the manuscript showed up in the catalog of Philobiblon, a Rome book dealer, for €180,000 (somewhere around $150,000 at that time). Philobiblon is in partnership with Forum.

To see my blog postings about the selling of the Laura manuscript, search under “Laura”, “auctions”, and “manuscripts”.

With the latest estimate at about one-fifth of the original in 2009, maybe Laura will now find a home in an institution or on the shelf of a collector. But I think not. In five and a half years, Philobiblon couldn’t move Laura. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the cachet of Lolita or even Pnin. She occupies almost no space in the Nabokov cultural imagination.

Here are the draft pages for translations in Serbo-Croatian. Twenty-five of Nabokov’s books have been translated into Serbo-Croatian and issued in 60 editions.

A note about Serbo-Croatian: It is one term for the primary language of four of the countries that were once part of Yugoslavia: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Today, however, within each of those countries, speakers identify their languages as Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin. For the sake of the bibliography, though, all translations emanating from those countries (and their previous manifestation as Yugoslavia) have been grouped under the one language name, Serbo-Croatian.

In Serbia Serbo-Croatian is written in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. In Croatia it is written only in Latin and in Bosnia it is written in both. In Montenegro it is also written in both, but with the preference for the Latin alphabet.

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Here are the draft pages for translations in Persian, also known as Farsi. Fifteen of Nabokov’s books have been translated into Persian and issued in 24 editions.

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An inscribed Nabokov book—but with no butterfly—with an extremely strong provenance will be offered in June by a major New York auction house. Its estimated sale price range will certainly reflect its provenance. I won’t have details until next month. This is the kind of item whose provenance stands in sharp contrast with the lots of dubious provenance recently sold by New England Book Auctions.

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Swann Auction Galleries is offering at its May 18 auction a slightly unusual copy of a 1955 Olympia Press first printing of Lolita. Each volume of the two-volume paperback edition is enclosed in a kind of dust jacket that the catalog describes as “[publisher’s?] photographically reproduced dust jacket with printed spines and back panels (‘Printemps * Paris * Primavera’ lettering repeated)”.

Supposed dust jackets for Olympia Press Lolita being offered by Swann Auction Galleries on May 18.

Supposed dust jackets for Olympia Press Lolita being offered by Swann Auction Galleries on May 18.

I’ve never seen any kind of dust jacket on this edition of Lolita or even a mention of one. The catalog says, “…it isn’t hard to imagine the publisher producing these as a way to slip Lolita past the censors, due to the book’s already notorious reputation.” That assumes that the covering was produced after Graham Greene praised the book at the end of 1955 (more than three months after its publication) and after the brouhaha over the book began a month later.

I doubt that this supposed dust jacket came from the publisher. Why would the French publisher print a band in French and Italian for an English language book? Or is it a generic Olympia Press covering? Never seen it before on any Olympia Press output, in particular the Traveler’s Companion series. Also, it is not unusual for a bookseller to wrap a book in covering of its own design. Or maybe the owner of the book made it himself and wanted to protect his copy.

The volumes themselves are in near fine condition. The Swann sale is #2416; the lot is #311.

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All ten lots of books supposedly signed/inscribed/lepidopterized by Nabokov sold at auction last night, April 26, at New England Book Auctions for a total take of $6815 (before the 15% buyer’s premium). For the last few days I have been posting evidence and deductions questioning the legitimacy of the inscriptions.

The fact that the books sold for significantly less than would be expected if they had had strong provenances behind them shows that others also doubted their authenticity.

The results (before the 15% buyer’s premium):

  • Lot 115, Bend Sinister, inscribed, $700.
  • Lot 116, Details of a Sunset, lepidopterized, $700.
  • Lot 117, Glory, lepidopterized, $650.
  • Lot 118, Invitation to a Beheading, lepidopterized, $1500.
  • Lot 119, King, Queen, Knave, inscribed, $225.
  • Lot 120, King, Queen, Knave, signed, $190.
  • Lot 121, King, Queen, Knave, lepidopterized, $750.
  • Lot 122, Pnin, inscribed, $350.
  • Lot 123, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, inscribed, $450.
  • Lot 124, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, inscribed, $1300.

I’ll be keeping an eye on the market as dealers and others begin to offer these books presumably as legitimate.

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James O’Sullivan has more valid points to make about the Shuttleworth family’s alleged Nabokov inscriptions going on the block tomorrow at New England Book Auctions. (For more on Thomas J. Wise, see the Wikipedia article.)

…processing further thoughts. I confess to finding literary frauds and fakes interesting (although this is hardly on a Thomas J. Wise level of sophistication).

Standing back to consider this group of books with Shuttleworth ‘provenance’, one notices a few things:

1) None of the books have much intrinsic (i.e. unsigned) value – there is no first Olympia Lolita, no first U.S. Catcher in the Rye, no first Godot or Murphy, no Mrs Dalloway or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The books on offer are not high spots that (if one were being skeptical) would a) cost a lot to acquire and b) invite unwanted attention.

2) From all the available evidence we can deduce that Martin Shuttleworth was (and I don’t imply disrespect) a very minor player in the post-war British arts scene, with occasional periodical work, a brief spell in the BBC, a couple of translations and books to his name, and a long teaching career in provincial tertiary education. From this, one can say that it would perhaps be plausible – if still unlikely – for him to have developed relationships with some of his peers and contemporaries in the U.K., and yet the collection seems to contain no inscribed books from John Osbourne, or Pinter, or Larkin or Kingsley Amis or Ted Hughes. Instead, he seems to have been able to foster friendships with the cream of international literary talent, even with those not known for being especially open to cultivating new associates (Salinger, Nabokov). The latter seems highly implausible in itself, and more so in the absence of any evident association with writers closer to home. Not only that, but there is also a signed Woolf, whom he could not possibly have known, and which would normally imply a larger collection of impressive books beyond the circle of writers he is purported to have known (and beyond the pursestrings of a provincial lecturer with four children).

Assuming the Shuttleworth provenance to be fraudulent, my mind then sets to wondering why he was selected. Was it thought out from the start, or perhaps (as the varying names and ill-researched back story suggests) imposed ex post facto on a pre-existing set of fraudulently inscribed books? The fact that Shuttleworth could be proven to have had some cultural connections, but not himself be famous enough to provoke doubt or easy research, perhaps made him a good ‘target’? It certainly seems to have been sufficient to fool a few booksellers who must have taken the letters of provenance at face value with little or no further examination

3) These are not very good fakes. Most signatures and (in Nabokov’s case, drawings) betray the lack of confidence of the maker – they are either jerky or timid; rarely fluent. The proportion of inscribed places and dates included in the batch is very high, and the places are uniformly obvious – places with a strong association to the author which could easily be drawn from Wikipedia or the like. There are small errors and inconsistencies throughout – misspellings, grammatical errors, unusual abbreviations. Indeed there are so many errors, and some are so basic, that one might almost suspect this to be a prank inviting discovery. But it is perhaps more likely that the originator(s) do not have English (or French) as a first language.

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James O’Sullivan, a frequent commenter here, has some further observations about the Nabokov volumes supposedly inscribed to the Shuttleworth family and being offered by New England Book Auctions on the 26th.

Thanks for the nice detective work! This does indeed smell bad, and on close inspection the inscriptions in the new sale do look like quite poorly-done fakes in several respects.

A few supplementary thoughts on this:

The online listings I’ve come across (eBay etc) often refer to Shuttleworth as having been “late editor” or, in one case “freelance editor” (whatever that might mean) of The Paris Review. This seems unlikely and is not mentioned in his obituary, and it may even be the case that the lister is unaware that The Paris Review is an American periodical and highly unlikely to have been edited by a very English Englishman who doesn’t appear to have lived in the U.S. at all. More likely this refers to the fact that Shuttleworth and his friend, the skilled but eccentric English novelist Simon Raven, conducted an interview with Graham Greene which appeared in a 1955 issue of the Paris Review in the famous series on ‘The Art of Fiction’. But this hardly makes him an ‘editor’ of said periodical since it appears to be his only – rather tangential – connection to it.

On another note, and as you point out, if Diane Westberg is 73, then she cannot be the same Lucy (not Lucille) Shuttleworth whose birth in Bristol is (as a quick search reveals) recorded by the UK authorities as having taken place in the third quarter of 1963. I’m not really sure how ‘Lucy’ ends up as ‘Lucille Diane’, or (according to UK records) how ‘Jason F. Shuttleworth’ morphs into ‘[Jason] James’ (lots 118 & 121). (In fact Jason F. Shuttleworth does not seem to be, as you suggest (and the obituary ordering implies), the youngest child as he is listed as having been born in Bristol, in the third quarter of 1961 (i.e. Lucy is the youngest)).
On a connected note, two other books with similar provenance have also ended up at Mystery Pier Books – an inscribed Beckett and an inscribed Salinger (!):

http://www.mysterypierbooks.com/book/fizzles/
http://www.mysterypierbooks.com/book/franny-and-zooey-2/

Inscribed Salinger’s are scarce enough to be more-or-less intrinsically doubtful things. I don’t know enough about Salinger to be sure, but it really seems to be straining credulity to think that anyone with any sanity would be, as the listing claims (presumably echoing the letter of provenanace) “promoting Salinger for a Nobel” in 1962 on the strength of one novel and some stories…

Two things strike me as odd with regards to the Beckett inscription “en Paris 25-10-76”. The first is that a fluent French speaker like Beckett would be highly unlikely to use the wrong preposition (‘en’ instead of ‘à’), although it’s a common mistake for the non-fluent to make, and I also feel that he would have been unlikely to inscribe in French to a non-French recipient. Secondly, according to Beckett’s biographer, the second holograph manuscript of “but the clouds…” is dated on the same day as this inscription, but is also inscribed with “Le T[ouquet]”, a resort c.250km from Paris. (However, it should be said that the Reading University Library dates this manuscript as 25/11/76).

In any case, I agree that the Shuttleworth provenance looks iffy and I am surprised that Mystery Pier Books seem to have been caught out with several different books from that source.

And, a bit later on other questionable inscriptions, he added:

Another listing with the same provenance:

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Ides-March-Thornton-Wilder-SIGNED-H-C-D-J-1948-Longmans-and-Green-/221896172350?hash=item33aa0ae33e

It doesn’t bear much resemblance to Wilder’s signature and the ink is very fresh for a signature from 1948. I think an American would not abbreviate Connecticut as ‘Con.’ but ‘Conn’ or ‘CT.’ but that may be nit-picking?

And:

And two more:

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Virginia-Woolf-Signed-A-Room-of-Ones-Own-1st-edition-/252360680527?hash=item3ac1de644f:g:hd0AAOSwWTRWv9vz
http://www.ebay.com/itm/Roadl-Dahl-Signed-My-Uncle-Oswald-1st-edition-/252360680304?hash=item3ac1de6370:g:2RcAAOSwezVWwFaz

The Woolf signature is not a bad effort although Woolf often grouped the dots over the three i’s in her first name together. But the transition from the ‘W’ to the ‘O’ is clumsy and the word ‘Woolf’ tails off as if apologetically thereafter. She famously (if not invariably) signed and inscribed in purple ink.

Dahl’s signature is rather inconsistent but the one on this copy looks horrible: the gap between the ‘l’ and the ‘d’ in ‘Roald’ even suggests the pause of someone who has momentarily forgotten how to spell the name. I’m no expert but I don’t think Dahl commonly noted the place and the addition of ‘Gypsy House’ merely suggests the spurious attempt to add authenticity by an appeal to basic knowledge (as per Montreux, en Paris, Montreux etc)

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As of today, the 24th, of the 10 inscribed/signed Nabokov items for sale on April 26 by New England Book Auctions, only one, lot #122, the Pnin (because of the facsimile dust jacket?), is marked in the catalog and online, ”sold-as-is”. None of the nine others are so marked. Paul Muller-Reid told me several days ago that he would announce before the lots are auctioned that they were being offered “as is”. It isn’t clear how NEBA will notify advance bidders of this change in condition of sale.

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The Nabokov Online Journal has posted, on this April 23rd, Nabokov’s 117th birthday (or thereabouts if you celebrate it on the 10th or the 22nd), an interview with me about my collecting and bibliographical work, “The Collector’s a Hedgehog, The Dealer’s a Fox”.

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