Monday, March 14, 2011

Featured Manuscript: By George! It's a Forgery!

George Gordon, Lord Byron

Curator's Note:

At some point in his collecting career, Lloyd Smith purchased a letter identified as having been written by Lord Byron (1788-1824). We don’t know when he purchased the letter and we don’t know if it came as part of a lot or if it was purchased as an individual item. In any event, the letter came to the Morristown NHP in 1957, along with Smith’s entire 300,000 item archival and rare book collections, through his last will and testament. At the time, the park was thrilled to have this letter from one of the most recognizable and important poets in the English language.

For decades, the letter was occasionally brought out for special viewing and discussion and then put back into storage. Last year, Morristown NHP brought the letter to the attention of a nearby institution that was planning an exhibit on Byron in 2012. A scan of the park’s letter was provided to the institution for study and it was discovered that the letter is in fact a forgery. Nowhere in the park’s record does any indication exist which would lead anyone to think the letter was not authentic. Yet, scholarly analysis concludes the letter is in fact not from Lord Byron’s hand.

The forging of letters or other manuscripts is nothing new. It’s been around as long as paper and ink. Yet, it still comes as a shock when a particular manuscript is proven to be false. Without going into great detail, the Byron letter had a number of anomalies ranging from the signature, the date, and the types of words utilized by the forger. So, while the park can no longer say we have a Byron letter, the forged version still allows us an opportunity to educate the public on a mysterious corner of the antiquarian market which is rarely discussed. As the saying goes, caveat emptor.

Lloyd W. Smith and Collecting
During the course of his active collecting career, which spanned over forty years, Florham Park business executive Lloyd W. Smith (1873-1955) no doubt purchased more than one or two forgeries which were passed off as the genuine article. Smith, as any collector would have, relied heavily on his small group of manuscript dealers to provide him with the best examples and quality of items he wished to acquire. Smith had standing orders with a small group of antiquarian dealers in New York and regularly purchased items through this method. This “standing order” method of purchasing antiquarian material (or other collectibles) is still utilized by many high-end collectors.
catalog clipping from Smith's original folder

Naturally, this type of arrangement required trust on both sides. Consequently, dealers relied on their knowledge of the field which was everything from acquisition, selling, connoisseurship, and interpersonal skills in general to build their reputation. High-end dealers in essence sold their reputation to potential customers as an overall package which appealed to collectors with the means to undertake such relationships.

In Lloyd W. Smith’s case, we don’t know specifically which dealers he had these types of arrangements with. Although it is safe to say that he probably relied on those dealers that were well known. Smith and others would have relied on the good name and record of individual dealer’s and auction houses and this relationship would have lasted for years, and in some cases, decades.

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