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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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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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”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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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 (!):

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:

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 two more:

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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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 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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Here are three Hairstreaks drawn in copies of Nabokov books. I’m posting these details of these drawings so that you can see the differences among them. A) is legitimate. It’s provenance is through the Nabokov estate. B) is very dubiously legitimate. It is from the April 26 NEBA auction. The James in the inscription is probably meant to be Martin Shuttleworth’s youngest child, Jason James. And C) is almost certainly fraudulent. It was the focus of three posts I made seven years ago. (See “Fake Inscriptions”, parts 1, 2, and 3.)

Detail of Hairstreak drawn in copy of 1969 McGraw-Hill King, Queen, Knave for his wife.

A) Detail of Hairstreak drawn in a Russian 1969 McGraw-Hill Korol’, dama, valet for Véra.

Detail of Hairstreak inscribed to “Young James [Shuttleworth?]”

B) Detail of Hairstreak for “Young James [Shuttleworth?]” in a 1968 McGraw-Hill King, Queen, Knave

C) Hairstreak dated “Xmas 1969”.

C) Hairstreak dated “Xmas 1969” drawn in a 1969 McGraw-Hill Ada.

This is a follow-up to my April 16 posting, “Dubious Ada Inscription Resurfaces”. Mystery Pier Books of West Hollywood, CA, had offered, since withdrawn, an inscribed Ada (picture C) supposedly from Diane Westberg of the Shuttleworth family.

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