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.