buying/selling books

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Ridiculously low estimates, obviously to lure bidders in. At those expectations, most of the lots should sell. But there are so many. Do you want the typewriters his wife or secretary used, but which he never touched, to transcribe from his index cards? I don’t.

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Dmitri Nabokov has consigned 111 lots of Nabokoviana–books (inscribed/signed/lepidopterized/annotated) and personal belongings–to Christie’s, London, South Kensington, for auction on 13 June.

See the details and an ecatalog at Christie’s.

Some thoughts:

That’s a lot of Nabokov lots—112 of them (including the outlier, lot 281, not from Dmitri Nabokov). I think Dmitri has made the same mistake again—consigning too much at once. I certainly understand the desire to create excitement by offering so many eye-watering items at the same time. But I doubt the market can bear the load.

And those prices! So out of line with the marketplace. Only one explanation: Start everything attractively low to pull in the bidders and then let their desires and enthusiasms push up the prices. But I am certain that some lots at affordable prices will sneak through. I’ve got my eyes on a few, but only if…

I think a tip-off on the reasoning on the prices is the plain and lonesome non-DN lot #281 of his Russian Mashen’ka at US$6100-9000. That is ridiculously high for such a beat up copy. It will never sell. Obviously, the consignor thought very differently than Dmitri.

Whatever the case, I’ve just ordered my copy of the catalog.

Be aware that on the Christie’s website, the online list isn’t complete. It shows only 52 lots. Look at the electronic version of the catalog instead, starting on p. 97.

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More information has emerged about the fraudulent VN-inscribed books on eBay. The rare book dealer who bought one from the online auction site recently points out that the perpetrator of the fraud has used other online identities and is fighting return of the payment.

Brainerd Phillipson, the rare book dealer in Holliston, MA, has sent me a follow-up email with information from Ivo de Galan, another person who has had dealings with the forger. Phillipson wrote me:

This morning [25 June] I received the following email from Ivo de Galan informing me that he knew about the fake Nabokov “ADA” early on. Apparently, the work was done by a group of forgers who have been preying on eager collectors.

Here is the email Phillipson received from de Galan:

The book from Nabokov, is indeed a fake. For well over a month I’ve been telling ebay they are the former pepperberry08 famous for forging autographs. Last year they were caught redhanded, and this is their new id. Sadly eBay does not care about my telling them. They stole 342 from me, and need to be stopped. (for the amount of fraud they commit is tens of thousands, these are big time crooks.

Sorry about your loss, which could have been avoided if eBay would have listened…

Phillipson wrote back to de Galan:

Thank you very much for your timely information about the fake Nabokov inscription in “ADA.” Once I ascertained that the book was a fake, I returned it in exactly the same condition, only to have the seller Carlos Melgar (Vivafandango) claim that it was not the same book. He is currently appealing.
However, PayPal has been very supportive in covering my initial loss, and I have forwarded your email to them.

Again, I strongly urge anyone who sees an inscribed VN book on eBay, or any other such site, to look at the item very, very carefully before making a commitment to buy it. Ask for the provenance and quality photos of the book first. Look at the seller’s response skeptically. Send email inquiries to dealers and collectors who are familiar with VN material. Send me an inquiry. Post a comment to this blog. The odds are very high that someone selling a VN-inscribed book in an unvetted public (that is, non-dealer, non-personal) marketplace is perpetrating fraud.

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They just keep rolling along…bogus VN inscriptions, that is. Vincent McDonough points out that “books4charities-2008” listed on eBay yesterday a “VN-signed” copy of the Fall 1967 issue of Paris Review with the VN interview inside. books4charities-2008 listed and successfully sold a “VN-signed” 1968 copy of King, Queen, Knave on 15 April on eBay. Take a look quickly. The bidding on the 24-hour-only, bidder-ID-kept-private, no-provenance-given auction ends this afternoon.

I sent a query to the seller. He answered quickly:

This was acquired at the Santa Monica book fair from a reputable dealer. From looking at other known exemplars in our own collection and that of others we believe this to be an authentic signature. We put our trust in the book dealer as well as our own experience.

This is essentially the same answer I got when I asked about the inscribed King, Queen, Knave in April. That also came from the Santa Monica book fair.

Actually I can’t tell for certain if the offer is the real thing because the photo of the signature is small and smeared. But all other evidence points to bogusness here.

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On 25 May on eBay, a seller with the ID of “vivafandango” sold an inscribed copy of the 1969 Ada with a butterfly drawing for $1375. On 21 May, before the auction had closed, I posted a piece here about the dubious authenticity of the inscription and drawing. My skepticism has been borne out. Here is the story so far.

When I saw the listing (first pointed out by Vinnie McDonough), I wrote to vivafandango and asked three questions:

  • “Could you post a clear, sharp, full picture of the inscription? The picture you posted is too blurry.”
  • “What is the provenance of the book?”
  • “Who or what is the Certificate of Authenticity from?”

I received prompt answers:

  • “Please see the description. I have added some details. I will not be able to send you a picture until Monday as I am away from home for a long week-end. There are floods in New South Wales and I have a house in Lismore which is endangered. Best Regards and thanks for your interest.”
  • “See my additions to description. Thank you.” The additions were, “COA issued in 1981 by Le Monde de l’Autographe (Paris). I bought this book from Anton Boulanger (nephew of Nadia Boulanger) in Lausanne in 1987.”

The photos, the critical photos,  never appeared.

On 8 June, Brainerd Phillipson, a dealer in Holliston, MA, posted a comment to my original item saying that he had won the book on eBay, had paid for it, and had just received it in the mail. He was having real doubts about its authenticity.

…I would love to see your close-up photos of the signature and butterfly. As the author of the standard VN bibliography, I have seen many VN signatures and drawings. Saying that, I must point out that I have only experience and not expertise. But I have developed a sense of what is authenticate VN and what isn’t. It is based on many elements. Please look again at my blog posting of 15 April.

The book you bought has the additional dubiousness of appearing to be a copy of the artificial hybrid VN drew for his wife for Christmas 1969 in a copy of King, Queen, Knave. I must say that I have never seen or heard of VN repeating himself in this fashion, especially repeating something for the person closest to him in his life.

In addition, can you determine the authenticity of the Certificate of Authenticity? Does J.M. Le Canuel exist? Did it ever? And did you ever wonder why you got the book so relatively cheaply? Other potential buyers shied away from bidding on the book because they felt as I do: It just didn’t feel authentic.

As I said, I would very much like to see your photos (including one of the certificate of authenticity) so that I can give you my further opinion. I must say, however, that I don’t think that anyone I know (with the exception of Dmitri) can say with absolute certainty that a particular VN inscription is or is not authentic. Personally, I feel that the best certitude comes from having a clear and complete line of provenance.

Mr. Phillipson replied:

…Yes, I wondered how I managed to win the book on the Ebay auction with such a low bid, but I have been lucky before and acquired some lovely first editions (real!) on Ebay in the past. Also, I originally doubted the butterfly drawing from the beginning, but the signature and other writing looked “right.” And when I saw the spectacular fusion of butterflies in the “Nabokov Butterflies” book translated by Dimitri, I felt it might be actually authentic. That is until I received the book. The drawing and the writing definitely did not feel correct.

There are too many inconsistencies in the letters, which just do not look like the genuine writing of VN that I have seen. And the butterfly drawing is amateurish.

Also, there’s the matter of the little triangular symbol beneath his signature. Have you ever seen it before?

The COA is just a photocopy that appears to be signed in green ink by Jean Maurice Le Canuel of Le Monde de L’Autographe, Paris.

Here are the photos for your consideration.

And here they are:

The inscription with an odd triangular figure.

The inscription with an odd triangular figure.

A larger picture of the signature.

A larger picture of the signature.

Detail of the drawing.

Detail of the drawing.

The full CoA.

The full CoA.

The signature on the CoA.

The signature on the CoA.

I wrote back to Mr. Phillipson.

I’ll take this one step at a time:

  • Signature – I agree that it looks awkward and doesn’t flow as a real signature would. The “b” in the surname is not formed the way VN normally did it.
  • Icon – That triangular thingie is totally new to me. I can’t imagine what it might mean.
  • Inscription – It does not at all sound like VN. I don’t think he would say “Dear Boy” and not use a name. And “Enjoy yourself!” is totally not VN’s voice: too flat, cliched, and meaningless. Also,the “Enjoy yourself!” is written in jerky block letters without the kind of flow VN’s hand always had.
  • Drawing – Yes, as you say, very amateurish. VN took great pride in his knowledge of lepidoptera and his rendering of them. The part that you show me is not his drawing.

I’m even more convinced now that it is all bogus. I’m sorry that you took the leap and lost. I hope that you can get your money back. And I think that something should be said to eBay.

And Mr. Phillipson wrote back:

I have initiated a “dispute” through PayPal, and I am returning the book for a full refund. I will let you know how the matter is eventually resolved.

I go into such detail here because so many fake VN inscriptions and drawings are being offered on the internet, people and dealers are being taken in, and those authentic inscriptions are being corrupted by association. Bad books drive down the value of the good.

I would appreciate hearing about other experiences with fake VN’s. Or even from readers who have questions about the authenticity of their own signed copies. And I have two questions: Has anyone ever seen that triangular thingie before? And did Nadia Boulanger have a nephew named Anton and who knew VN?

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Vinnie McDonough has pointed out what looks very much like another fake VN inscription from the world capital of fake VN inscriptions, Australia. It is being offered on eBay.

It is a copy of the 1969 McGraw-Hill Ada with a drawing similar to what VN did for Véra for Christmas 1969 of a Hairstreak with Australian Lacewing tails. That original was done in a copy of King, Queen, Knave in Russian that McGraw-Hill published in 1969. You can see it on the front-free endpaper of Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977.

I’ve asked the seller for further information (clearer photo, provenance, details of the alleged Certificate of Authenticity) but I don’t really expect a response.

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Mr./Ms. “books4charities-2008” did very well in selling a supposedly VN-inscribed copy of King, Queen, Knave on eBay yesterday. He/she took a $15 book, applied a pen to it, and turned it into a $367 sale (less eBay fees and shipping). Five people placed 14 bids, the last one 32 seconds before the close. Final price: $367. The auction was open for only 24 hours. All other bidding results were kept private at the request of the seller. We don’t know who bought it or any of the other books this seller has listed and sold on eBay since last July.

I did write to the seller, asking for the book’s provenance. I got this short reply:

Yes it was signed in person for the previous owner. This item was purchased at the Santa Monica book fair last year. Thanks for the question.

That wasn’t enough for me. So I wrote again:

Thanks for the further information. But that is not much of a provenance. To work backwards, who was the dealer at the fair and who was the person for whom VN signed the book in May 1971? If you don’t know whom VN signed it for, can you point me to someone who does?

And the conversation ended there, for I didn’t hear from him/her again.

Of course it is possible that he/she really did buy it from a dealer at that book fair and offered it in good faith on eBay. But it smells otherwise.

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”VN was well-known for refusing to sign copies of his books for people he didn’t have a personal relationship with. For instance, on 3 October 1958 (see Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977, p. 265), Véra Nabokov wrote to Anita Loos:

My husband asks me to tell you that he was glad to autograph Lolita for you. What comes now is a little embarrassing: he has been autographing Lolita only for personal friends and the very few writers whose work he admires. He has refused his autograph to so many of his own students and to so many of his acquaintances that it would be impossible for him to make an exception in the case of young MacArthur…

That is why there are relatively few VN-inscribed books on the market. And the few that do make it there are very expensive.

Well, where there’s a want and money can be made by responding to it, you can be sure that someone will come along with the goods. And that is just what has been happening on eBay. In the past five years or so I’ve seen up to a dozen frauds, mostly from Australia.

In fact today (15 April), I see that an eBay seller, “books4charities-2008”, in this case out of Los Angeles, has just listed a signed copy of the 1968 McGraw-Hill King, Queen, Knave. It looks very suspicious for many reasons:

  • It is not inscribed to a person. It is just a signature and date (May 1971). VN certainly did that sometimes, but it is unusual, especially later in his life.
  • The signature itself looks gnarled and doesn’t have the flow of legitimate VN signatures I’ve seen.
  • The seller’s other current auction books are all signed—a sign of a serial forger.
  • The starting price is low—$95—and the “Buy It Now” price is much, much too low at $249.99. A legitimate signed VN should be offered on eBay for at least five times that amount.
  • The seller offers no provenance for the book. (Since VN usually addressed his inscriptions to specific individuals, the provenance of his inscribed books is relatively easy to trace.)
  • The seller hasn’t done his homework: He doesn’t list the printing or describe the condition of the book.
  • Though this auction is not marked “private”, each of the previous auctions by this seller was private and I cannot see what he has sold in the past. Sellers of other fakes often try to restrict information.
  • I check eBay every day and I noticed the listing just this morning. Yet the end time is 5:15pm PDT today. A common listing, especially for what would normally be an expensive book, is a week and gives potential buyers time to think about the item and ask questions and get answers before committing themselves. Here, it’s hit-and-run: List it, grab the money, and run.
  • And I don’t believe the philanthropic implication of the seller’s ID.

Conclusion: This smells very strongly of fraudulence; it is a knowingly fake VN-inscribed book.

I would like to hear of others’ experiences with inscribed—real and fraudulent—VN books.

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