inscriptions

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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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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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Three Russian editions and one American, inscribed by VN, none with butterflies, were offered at inconsistent prices at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair this year.

Invitation to a Beheading

Priglashenie na kazn', 1938, cover

Priglashenie na kazn', 1938, cover

Priglashenie na kazn', 1938, inscription

Priglashenie na kazn', 1938, inscription

Bernard Quaritch of London had a Приглашение на казнь [Priglashenie na kazn’/Invitation to a Beheading], Paris, 1938, (Juliar A16.1), inscribed by VN in Russian, “To Anna Maksimovna and Semen Il’ich Shtein with a heartfelt hello from V. Nabokov. XI.38” (as translated by the dealer). The only reference I find to a Shtein in Boyd’s biography is in The Russian Years, p. 192, as a family friend, in reference to the day that VN’s father was killed. The book is in fine condition. It has one oddity: a mylar-like page bound into the book (not tipped in) between the front cover and the inscription on the first page. I may be able to learn more about it later from the dealer. Price, £8,000/$12,000.

Glory

Podvig, 1932, cover

Podvig, 1932, cover

Podvig, 1932, cover
Podvig, 1932, inscription

Podvig, 1932, inscription

Lame Duck of Cambridge, MA, had a Подвиг [Podvig/Glory], Paris, 1932, (Juliar A13.1), inscribed by VN in Russian, “To my dear Jakov Mysevich Tzwibak with the fond memories of the author, XII.32” (as translated by the dealer). The description continues: “Andrei Sedykh (real name Lev Tzwibak), secretary of Ivan Bunin and editor-in-chief of Novoe Russkoe Slovo (The New Russian Daily) newspaper”. As you can see in the photo, the paper has begun acidifying and the tape residue across the spine and onto the cover are very unappealing. I would describe its overall condition as fair. Price, $27,500. I cannot explain why it is more than twice the price of the one from Quaritch. When in the market, always shop around.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941, cover

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941, cover

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941, inscription

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941, inscription

Lame Duck also had The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, New York, 1941 (the day before Pearl Harbor), (Juliar A21.1a), inscribed in Russian and English to Mark Aleksandrovich Aldanov. My ability to decrypt Russian script is minimal. I can make out only to whom the inscription is addressed and the English: “I am too old to change conradically | I.42”. The “Publication Date” stamping, normally indicating an advanced or review copy, is not uncommon for this book. The December 12th date may have been what the publisher anticipated but the U.S. copyright office has a December 6th date. The dust jacket is in woeful shape, missing half the spine and decaying from acidification. The binding is the red burlap-like cloth variant. Price, $27,500.

King, Queen, Knave

King, Queen, Knave, 1928, cover

Korol' dama valet, 1928, cover

King, Queen, Knave, 1928, inscribed

Korol' dama valet, 1928, inscription

Though he has been trying to sell it for more than five years, I want to include here an item from Thomas Goldwasser (San Francisco, CA), Король, дама, валет [Korol’, dama, valet/King, Queen, Knave], Berlin, 1928, (Juliar A9.1), inscribed by VN in Russian, “To most respected Savelii Grigorevich Poliak, in kind memory from the author. X.28 Berlin” (translated by the dealer). It is rebound in cloth, with the front wrapper trimmed and glued to the cover and includes library stamps of the Russian Refugees’ Relief Association, London. Price, $8500.

More

I saw one juicy rarity that I need another posting to describe, in “VN at the NY Book Fair (3): The 1937 John Long Despair”.

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