So you want to be a Wise guy
Scribner's issued this catalogue of Thomas J. Wise material in 1945.
By Bruce McKinney
It can be difficult, in collecting printed material, to know what to collect. The printed universe is enormous. Whether to define collecting ambitions by subject, period, author, type, style, place, event(s), some other factor or a combination of factors is a potentially complex decision often informed by luck and frequently enhanced by suggestions and guidance from knowledgeable dealers. Certainly the best collections are focused. Ask any auction house what they do best with and they will tell you focused, single owner collections. Many, arguably most, subjects are potentially very large. Here, by comparison, is a relatively small one: collecting material relating to Thomas J. Wise. Don’t know him? Read on. He’s a good investment.
Thomas J. Wise was a great collector of the English Lake District poets and other esteemed writers of the nineteenth century. They included George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Algernon C. Swinburne, Alfred Tennyson, W. M. Thackeray, William Wordsworth, and Edmund Yates. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he certainly flattered them. Actually he went a bit further. He faked some of their early printings and then “discovered” them. Next, as an expert, he confirmed their authenticity.
He fabricated not books but early printings – pamphlets. He was an esteemed authority with a famous knack for finding previously undiscovered material. Much of the traffic in both the knowledge of these authors and their early printings passed through him or nearby and he must have experienced two feelings that when present in the same person spell risk and disaster. He could see that the market wanted more copies and he could see that the people who wanted them often didn’t have great knowledge. So he stepped across the line to forge copies to satisfy anxious and willing collectors and at the same time created a trading currency he then used to exchange his manufactured rarities for genuine items.
In 1934, while Mr. Wise yet lived, he was unmasked by John Carter and Graham Pollard in their scientifically conclusive investigation of his discoveries, a book titled “An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets.” What did him in? Watermarks and type faces. In many cases he used watermarked paper that didn’t exist as early as the printed dates on his forgeries. In other cases he used type faces that weren’t developed until later. After his death others would establish that he had a partner in his crimes: H. Buxton Forman who had the good sense to die before these forgeries were uncovered. They were always going to be caught. Mr. Wise simply lived too long.
So you want to be a Wise guy
Thomas J. Wise in 1905, at the peak of his prestige.
What Mr. Wise and Mr. Foreman left behind has been carefully studied and the rather limited number of things they forged and, in other cases legitimately issued, now comprise a universe of forgeries and collateral material that can be deemed complete at about 500 or so items. For the collector of this material the emphasis becomes acquisition, a tremendous simplification over the "identification" model that requires collectors to either do substantial work personally or place great confidence professionally in a dealer for advice.
This means that a collector can focus on obtaining the material rather than identifying it, the ongoing curse of many book collectors and collections. In other words, we are today left, in the material of Thomas J. Wise, with an almost perfect collecting opportunity so long as the collector is not troubled with the fact that many of the essential items are forgeries. They are in fact real forgeries and have become rare in their own right.
Attached to this article is a simple search screen for a data source we recently added to the Americana Exchange Database (AED). It is one of Scribner's rarer catalogues: No. 131 published in 1945, "Nineteenth Century Pamphlets with an Appendix of Wiseiana" a catalogue of "an almost complete set of the late Thomas J. Wise's forgeries." This is a small catalogue, 74 items described in 30 pages. The default is "Show me all the records." To see them simply select SUBMIT. To search for a specific term or phrase in the author or title field first select the field and then enter a search term.
For those who pursue this material, this catalogue is another item to find. For those who enter these waters for the first time, I'll send you on with a quote from the great book collector Mae West: "I used to be Snow White but I drifted." The same can be said for Thomas Wise. If you go down this road stay on track.