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The dubiously lepidopterized <em>Ada</em>

The dubiously lepidopterized Ada dated 1969.

An apparently fraudulent lepidopterized Ada that was highlighted here seven years ago, was recently being offered by Mystery Pier Books in West Hollywood, CA, for $13,500.

Co-proprietor Harvey Jason said on Wednesday that he was unaware of the item’s history and was going to look into it. Two days later the book was removed from the store’s website at mysterypierbooks.com. Jason declined to give the book’s provenance.

The three-part posting about the book, titled “Another Fake Inscription”, appeared in June, 2009.

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I’m away from my desk and won’t be posting any bibliographic updates for several weeks. As a matter of fact I’m in St. Petersburg right now. On Friday my wife and I had the extraordinary pleasure of meeting Tatiana Ponomareva, the director of the Nabokov Museum here in the Nabokov family’s house, and Daniel Sergeyev, the program director. I’ll report on my visit later once my jet-lagged brain becomes defogged.

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The oddest thing about the Nabokov lots in the Bonhams auction today in New York was that a copy of Grozd’ went for more than seven times its high estimate (estimate, $1200–1800; result $13,000 + 25% buyer’s premium). Two bidders got into a bidders’ war and someone paid an exorbitant price for a book not even in its original wrappers and with brown stains (water?) on some of the leaves. Grozd’, published in Berlin in 1923 by Grani, is certainly a rare and hard to find book from very early in Nabokov’s career. Bonhams’ estimate was a fair estimate. But such a book in such condition is not worth $16,250 in any real market. But then odd things happen at auctions.

Of the other lots, Gornyi put’, a very, very nice copy, sold for $3800 (before premium), $300 above the top estimate. Podvig, a bit banged up and inscribed in 1932, went for $6500 (est. $7000–9000); Podvig, plain and with repairs (est. $700–1000), got up to only $480 and didn’t sell; Stikhotvoreniia: 1929–1951, with extensive repairs of its cover (est. $500–700), climbed to $320 and then pooped out; an Olympia Press Lolita, a very worn first issue (est. $1200–1800), sold for $950; and, an Ada, inscribed and lepidopterized to close friend George Hessen (est. $15,000–25,000), made it to $14,000 and sold.

What conclusions can I draw from this? None. The market for these things is very small and runs on passions and perceptions. And all it needs is two bidders.

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Seven Nabokov items are among the 230 lots of “Russian Literature and Works on Paper” (Akhmatova, Belyi, Bulgakov, Mandelshtam, Mayakovsky, Olesha, Pasternak, and other writers, artists, and composers) that the British auction house Bonhams is offering on 5 December at its New York branch. Click here to see them.

They are, with a note about each item and its estimate:

  • Grozd‘, rebound, $1200-1800
  • Gornii put’, original wrappers, $2500-3500
  • Podvig, rebacked, inscribed, $7000-9000
  • Podvig, repaired, $700-1000
  • Stikhotvoreniia: 1929-1952, badly stained, $500-700
  • Lolita, issue a, worn, $1200-1800
  • Ada, inscribed & lepidopterized, $15,000-25,000

The estimates are a bit high considering the relatively tarnished conditions some of the books are in. The buyer’s premium is 25%.

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My instant post-game analysis of today’s auction of 22 Nabokov lots at Bloomsbury Auctions in London: Ho-hum.

Twelve of the lots were sold, ten were passed on. The first lot, a battered Mashen’ka, went for the minimum expected, £1500 (plus the buyer’s premium of 24%). Three rebound Russian novels (Kamera obskura, Otchaianie, and Priglashenie na kazn’) were passed on. One rebound novel, Zashchita Luzhina, sold at £320, above the high estimate. I think that’s due to the difficulty of finding any copy of ZL and this copy’s relatively low price.

Some Russian novels in wrappers didn’t sell (Dar, Sogliadatai, and Podvig). Most of the English language lots sold: a 1936 John Long Camera Obscura without dust jacket at £1400; a 1959 Putnam Invitation to a Beheading with a tipped in letter from Véra Nabokov at £180; an Olympia Press Lolita, second issue, at £1700; a Bend Sinister, inscribed and lepidopterized, at £3800, the most expensive lot sold; an inscribed Pnin at £2200; a Putnam Lolita, ninth impression, inscribed and lepidopterized, at £3500.

The lot of 30 letters from 1958–1981, two with butterflies, to Nabokov’s cousins, the de Petersons, didn’t sell (estimated at £8–12,000). Nor did the most delightful piece, an inscribed and 8X-lepidopterized copy of Stikhotvoreniia: 1929–1951, estimated at £6–8000. You have your good days and you have your so-so days. One could say that that’s how the ball bounces.

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Bloomsbury Auctions in London has 21 lots of Nabokov books (many inscribed) and a lot of 30 letters coming up for sale on 27 November. Go to bloomsburyauctions.com and click on the “Important Books & Manuscripts” auction. The Nabokov lots are #133–154. (Or click here to go directly to the catalog page where the Nabokov lots begin.)

The estimated prices are accurate. The conditions of some of the books are, from the fastidious collector’s point of view, not very good. Many copies are not in their original bindings. But there are many desirable pieces. I think that the most delightfully desirable is lot #148, Stikhotvoreniia [Poems] 1929–1951 (A27.1 in my bibliography), published in Paris by Rifma in 1952. The book itself contains 16 Russian poems in a compact 48 pages. The real attraction is the quickly sketched flutter of eight giddy butterflies over Nabokov’s inscription to Jacob Frumkin. Take a look.

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The 138 penciled index cards comprising the manuscript of VN’s The Original of Laura failed to sell at Christie’s on Friday. With a pre-auction estimate of $400,000-600,000, the bidding moved quickly from the $200,000 opening to $280,000 and then stalled out. It took less than 23 seconds.

There was obviously much interest in this first open offering of the manuscript of a VN novel. Four broadcasting video cameras covered the event including one from the Russian TV network Zvezda. As soon as the the cards in lot number 95 failed to sell, three of them, including Zvezda, immediately began to break down their equipment and pack up.

The five inscribed and lepidopterized VN books that were also offered all sold at prices within or just under their estimates. A 1947 Henry Holt Bend Sinister, presented to Véra Nabokov’s sister, Sonia Slonim, got knocked down at $9500 (estimated $7000-10,000); a 1952 Rifma Stikhotvoreniia 1929-1951, presented to Véra Nabokov’s cousin, Anna Feigen, $10,000 (estimated $10,000-15,000);  a 1952 Chekhov Dar, presented to Slonim, $8000 (estimated $10,000-15,000); a 1959 Putnam Invitation to a Beheading, presented to Feigen, $6500 (estimated $7000-10,000); and, a 1962 Putnam third printing of Pale Fire, presented to Slonim, $11,000 (estimated $8000-12,000). The five prices do not include the buyer’s premium of 25%. A large number of the bids on the presentation copies appeared to have been placed over the phone.

The auction went as I had expected. The presentation copies were estimated fairly and all sold. But the TOoL manuscript failed at its estimated price level for several reasons. For one, even though its recent publication has generated a tremendous amount of publicity and interest, that does not automatically translate into the passion that is necessary for someone to want to lay out big bucks for a piece of literature. Laura is not Lolita. At least not yet. It is a new book. It does not yet occupy real space in our literary imaginations. And the economy is still limping along. Maybe Cornell or some other such institution couldn’t find a benefactor willing to put up the cash. The top failed bid of $280,000 was, I think, a relatively accurate pricing of the manuscript.

Incidentally, a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a first edition, limited issue, one of 100 copies on Dutch handmade paper, and signed by Joyce, the most desirable version, estimated at $200,000-300,000, was also passed over. The biggest surprise, though, wasn’t a book, a manuscript, or even a piece of paper. It was the Olivetti portable typewriter on which Cormac McCarthy typed all of his work from 1958 to 2009. It was estimated at $15,000-20,000. It went for a whopping $210,000 plus $44,500 for the buyer’s premium. The tall, middle-aged man who bought it obviously had the passion and the bucks.

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To continue from my previous posting about Christie’s 4 December auction of VN’s index cards/manuscript of The Original of Laura.

On 5 May 2004, the well-known French auction house Tajan offered 104 lots from Dmitri Nabokov’s personal library of inscribed and lepidopterized presentation copies of his father’s works along with minor manuscript material and books about VN. Some of the books included annotations and corrections. The estimated prices were high, very high. Three had a top estimate of 100,000 €. The catalog was an expensive affair, issued in hardcover.

Though I have never found direct information on exactly what happened, I heard through the grapevine that the auction was a disaster and that nothing was sold. In fact, Tajan didn’t issue on paper or online a list of the auction results. What happened? I think that those 104 lots were just too many for the Nabokov market to absorb at one time and the estimated prices (and therefore the reserves) were simply too dear to potential buyers. Tajan must have spent a lot of money on preparing for the auction and got nothing for its efforts (depending on whatever deal it struck with Dmitri). And Dmitri had to take all of his books back home.

So here at Christie’s we have, quantitatively, a much more modest offering: one manuscript (very much in the public’s literary eye today) and five inscribed editions. The five books have estimates from a low of $7,000-10,000 to a high of $10,000-15,000. These are justifiable estimates for copies inscribed to close members of the family outside of the very inner circle of Véra and Dmitri.

And the 138 index cards? I ask myself, How often does a novel by a major literary figure come on the market? Extremely rarely. I mentally turn the cards over in my hands. This is terra incognita. This is at the very high end of the literary market. I see a shot into the stratosphere that will, like a cloud-seeding experiment, affect everything VN under it. So for now, unsatisfyingly, I decline to come to a conclusion. I’ll attend and see what happens and then reach for an understanding.

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Christie’s auction of The Original of Laura manuscript

Christie’s auction of The Original of Laura manuscript

For sale: The original of The Original of Laura.

No, not the copy, the published version, that goes on sale on 17 November, but the actual index cards.

Dmitri Nabokov has consigned the 138 index cards to the New York branch of Christie’s for the “Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts” auction on Friday afternoon, 4 December. The pre-auction estimate (lot 95) is $400,000-600,000. The catalog for the auction (number 2227) features a cover photo of the first card of the novel (“The Original of Laura | Ch. One | Her husband, she answered, was a | writer too—at least, after a fashion. | …”) and an often seen photo of VN by Jerry Bauer. Pages 50-53 contain a description of the origins of the manuscript, a depiction of the fragmentary novel, and comments about its publication. The catalog text reads in large part as if it were written by Dmitri Nabokov. There are further photos of the index cards, many of which are deliberately blurred totally beyond legibility. I don’t know why.

Also in the auction (lots 96-100) are five of VN’s books inscribed and lepidopterized to Véra’s sister, Sonia Slonim, and Véra’s cousin, Anna Feigen. Their auction estimates range from $7,000-10,000 to $10,000-15,000.

It’s exciting stuff. I’m not aware of any VN novel manuscripts ever being offered at auction. Maybe a story or a poem, but not a novel. One reason is that the great bulk of VN manuscripts and other material was sold to the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library in 1991 or given to the Library of Congress. But I honestly don’t expect the 138 TOoL cards to get knocked down near the estimated prices. Unless one of those bonus baby bankers is a VN collector.

I’ll have more to say.

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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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