Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Of course, the troubled times refer to the current economy. Its effects are rippling throughout the rare book trade. Booksellers are putting on a brave face, but sometimes the mask slips. Joe McCann in the latest issue of Rare Book Review was upbeat about the sales at the York (England) Book Fair. Sales were up. Yet those were sales among dealers. McCann admitted that sales to non-dealers were down slightly. Heritage Auctions out of Texas issued a press release stating all was well in the industry. They raved about the latest auction results for a rare coin sale. That makes sense as precious metals are a true hedge against inflation. As suggested on the Bunker, books are not. The press release does not mention the rare book market. Silence speaks louder than words in some cases. This was all before the shit really hit the fan in October. What happened at Christie’s in early November might be a scary indicator of where the collectible market is and where it is going.
In these hard times, you gotta do what you gotta do to make a buck. And that means buyer beware: expect more forged signatures to start popping up on the market. Tom Congalton of Between the Covers alerted me to this troubling trend. He wrote in his column entitled “Forging Ahead” also for Rare Book Review that he was seeing lots of questionable signed copies passing through his shop in the last few months. This dovetails with what I have been observing online, particularly on eBay. There have been some interesting items up for sale, but, boy, red flags galore.
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that any bookstore or seller is actively forging Burroughs signatures or knowingly selling forged items. I am stating that booksellers have to be especially wary of all the items that pass through their door during a bad economy. That means performing due diligence on every item. That means accurate descriptions. That means full disclosure and open communication. Book collectors have to be similarly vigilant.
Awhile back, I thought that a copy of The Ticket That Exploded inscribed by Burroughs to Ted Berrigan being offered by Ken Lopez may have been stolen from UCLA. What were the chances of two inscribed copies from Burroughs to Berrigan of the same book? Well, Lopez is one of the best of the best, and he took the matter seriously. He contacted UCLA. He did his research, and it turned out UCLA still had their copy. Lopez felt secure in how he got the book. Everything was on the up and up. Lopez put the book on the market, and it sold rather quickly. Such due diligence is one reason why you are going to pay a bit more for a book sold by Lopez. In addition, he obtains his books from reputable sources. When you buy a signed Hemingway from Lopez, the book is going to be in great condition, and the signature is going to be authentic. You get what you pay for.
Booksellers like Congalton and Lopez know the good, the bad, and the ugly of the rare book market and, as Congalton showed in his column, he is quite willing to alert buyers to the ugly side of the trade. I suspect he feels it is his ethical responsibility as a bookseller. Such ethics and codes are the number one reason that associations such as the ABAA or the ILAB are not bullshit, but the bedrock of the business. This is especially the case in an industry overrun by megalisters and sparsely populated with true bookman.
Take a copy of Dead Fingers Talk that recently sold on eBay. (pdf of auction) Would Between the Covers or Ken Lopez Booksellers have offered this book without a full explanation of its history and provenance? Most definitely not. The book in question purports to be one of 80 copies of Dead Fingers Talk (Calder / Olympia Press) signed by Burroughs and Ian Sommerville. When I first saw this item, I nearly fell off my chair. What a remarkable item! In the 1960s, Sommerville was a constant companion of Burroughs and, in the case of The Soft Machine, a collaborator. He is a major figure in Burroughs’ personal and creative life, possibly just behind Ginsberg and Brion Gysin in importance. Burroughs’ interest in tape recorder and feedback loops can be directly attributed to Sommerville.
Then the doubts began to creep in. Why was the book so cheap? The Buy It Now was a bit over $200. A Dead Fingers Talk signed by just Burroughs is $300-400. This copy with Sommerville’s signature would have to be around $500-600, right? But that was only guessing since in 15 years of collecting I have never seen Sommerville’s signature on a Burroughs book, let alone Dead Fingers Talk.
I emailed around in order to authenticate the signature. Other collectors in the game much longer than I were similarly at a loss. The experts could shed no light on Sommerville’s signature. Even those with a personal connection came up blank. For example, Jan Herman received mail from Sommerville, but it was so long ago he could not remember what the signature looked like. I emailed Carl Weissner and sent him an image of the signatures. He replied that the Sommerville signature did, indeed, look authentic. We suddenly had a full-blown mystery on our hands.
The Burroughs signature was more familiar territory, and personally, I did not like the looks of it. I asked around and the Burroughs signature raised red flags with others as well. This is largely a question of feel and experience. It is like pornography; you know it when you see it. Some signatures just look terrible and, like the signature on the copy of Time I discussed a while back, are easy to dismiss. Some are a bit more difficult. This signature proved tricky to nail down. Throughout his life, Burroughs signature was all over the place. On my old web site, I wrote a piece comparing Burroughs’ signature over a 35-year period. I re-post it here for other collectors’ reference.
But what worried me about this book was less the signatures than the circumstances surrounding the “limited” edition. Where did it come from? When did it occur? Why did I not know about it? Surely if 80 copies were signed, one would have come up for sale in the last 30 years. I asked around and nobody remembered it. Surely, it would have been mentioned in Maynard & Miles or Shoaf. Legendary rarities like the “Letter from a Master Addict” (50 copies) or the Digit Junkie (number of copies unknown) have turned up for sale. Other limited subsets like that of Time or Minutes to Go have been recorded in the bibliographies. Why not this “limited” edition of Dead Fingers Talk? Believe it or not, 80 copies is a lot of copies. There were 4000 copies of the book printed so 80 is a sizable subset.
I needed some information about how this set of 80 copies came to be. And lo and behold, out of the blue, I received an email comment responding to my column on the Washington DC Bookfair. In that column I mentioned Dead Fingers Talk. The email seemed to clear everything up. The comment stated that a subset of 80 copies signed by Sommerville and Burroughs did exist, and, in fact, Sommerville mentioned signing the books in a letter to Ginsberg dated May 11, 1965. Moreover, the letter was in the University of Utah archive. Things got curiouser and curiouser.
A quick search of the electronic catalog at Utah failed to turn up any Ginsberg letter, but to tell the truth I really wanted this copy of Dead Fingers Talk to be authentic. I wanted to believe. So I emailed Craig Dworkin at the University of Utah to help me out. Dworkin runs the Eclipse Project at Utah and knows the special collections there as well as anybody. If the letter existed he would find it. Dworkin could not locate the letter at the University of Utah and in addition he checked other major libraries in the state. Dworkin made clear to me that the letter could still be in Utah, but it is not catalogued correctly.
So on the one hand I had Carl Weissner confirming that the Sommerville signature looked as he remembered it and on the other hand I had a Purloined Letter of sorts hidden in the depths of a library in Utah. Like in Poe’s story, finding the letter would solve the mystery. If anybody can locate this letter and pdf it for me, I will post it as a supplement to this column. What I did have was a complete lack of information on the history and the provenance of this book. Booksellers like Lopez and Between the Covers do not deal in mysteries of this type. They are bad for business.
As a result of my research I decided to pass on this copy of Dead Fingers Talk. It just did not pass the sniff test for me personally. This could be a major mistake on my part, and I would love to be wrong because it is a remarkable combination of signatures. So again let’s call this column a request for information. If anybody has one of the 80 copies in their possession or has any other information please email. It will help update Burroughs’ bibliography. As Shoaf has shown, new items turn up all the time. I hope this is another new discovery.
Another search on eBay revealed what could be another previously unrecorded item. The same seller had a copy of the Yage Letters (City Lights 1963) signed by Burroughs and Ginsberg. (pdf of auction) Again this was described as a subset of 100 copies so signed by both. Again the Burroughs bibliographies do not mention this subset of signed copies. In addition, Bill Morgan, Ginsberg’s bibliographer, did not uncover these copies in his research. Morgan’s work on Ginsberg is recognized as being particularly thorough and meticulous. I attempted to contact Bill Morgan through email, but apparently his email has changed. If anybody can forward this column to him to ask about a signed / numbered Yage Letters I would appreciate it. There were 3000 copies of the first edition of the Yage Letters printed. (Note: The Yage Letters was reprinted several times before the second edition of 1975. Make sure you have the first edition, first printing when collecting Yage Letters. I would assume the later printings are clearly marked as such, but if not, remember the first edition was printed on letterpress in England [by Villiers] and were sewn into the binding. The later reprints were printed in Ann Arbor Michigan and are perfect bound, i.e., glued into the binding as single sheets not as signatures). So a full 3% of Yage Letters were purportedly signed by Ginsberg and Burroughs. Again one of these would have arrived on the market before now. Right??
The price of this copy was another red flag for me. The Buy It Now was around $150 (which it sold for). This is extremely low. Dangerously so. Unsigned copies are around $100. A copy signed by Burroughs can get as high as $300. Signed by both, call it $500-600. Yet these are extremely unusual. More often than not you will find the two signatures on the 1975 second edition. Even so, it is listed for over $500. If the price you paid is too good to be true, there is usually a reason for that.
Take a close look at the Burroughs signature on this copy of Yage Letters. It is almost identical to the signature on Dead Fingers Talk. Maybe even the same pen. The numbers are written the same. That suggests that Burroughs signed the two books at roughly the same time. If the May 11, 1965 letter to Ginsberg exists (and I just could not locate it) then the books were signed between 1963 and May 11, 1965. This is actually a point in the books’ favor since Dead Fingers Talk and Yage Letters were published in 1963. The question remains if Burroughs, Sommerville, and Ginsberg were all together (or were any of them together) during that time period. Burroughs and Ginsberg were in the United States at this time. Again Sommerville (as with his signature) is the wild card. Where was he? Burroughs and Sommerville were in Tangiers together in 1964, then Burroughs went to the United States. Despite Burroughs’ urging, Sommerville did not visit the US while Burroughs was there. So it is doubtful all three were together but the Burroughs / Ginsberg and Burroughs / Sommerville pairings were possible in this time frame.
So let’s go back to the signatures. Ignore the Burroughs signature and examine Ginsberg’s. To me it just does not look right. Compare this signature with one from July 20, 1963 in a copy of NOW. These signatures would be from roughly the same time period. The Yage Letters signature seems too spread out. If the NOW signature is authentic, the differences are striking. Also damning to me is the lack of flourishes. Ginsberg rarely just signed a book. He often dated, inscribed or added doodles. My copy of NOW has doodles. Ginsberg frequently drew fish or flowers. By the 1970s or so, Ginsberg usually included his mantra “AH” with his signature. On the other hand, there are reasons that the signature may appear strange in this copy of the Yage Letters. Who knows Ginsberg’s state of mind when he signed these 100 copies? He could have been drunk or high, thus spreading out the signature. You will see this with Burroughs’ signature at times, particularly into the 1980s and 1990s. This is also the result of old age. In addition, signing a lot of books at once would loosen-up Ginsberg’s signature as he would be rushing through them. In addition, he probably would not personalize each copy during a mass signing.
So there is the chance both these books are legit. I take Weissner’s opinion on the Sommerville signature very seriously and if the Sommerville signature is authentic, why wouldn’t the other signatures be? Why, then, have they never appeared for sale before now? I just cannot get around this question. Maybe they were never released into the market and remained in storage somewhere. Possibly one or two copies leaked out and landed in a bookstore in Europe. It is possible but that is a lot of maybes and what ifs. Whoever bought these copies of Dead Fingers Talk and Yage Letters took a risk. With a little more research that risk could pay off big. Or it could prove to be a somewhat costly mistake. With each book, it was roughly a $150 gamble. In the current economic market, I did not feel it was time to take such chances. The question for me was: why were the books available at this moment in time? The online rare book market is too unpredictable right now for me to buy with confidence. This could be my loss and your gain.
In his article in Rare Book Review, Congalton writes, “Be doubly afraid if that hyper-valuable signature appears in an inexpensive reprint, in one of the author’s later books that might be available inexpensively, or copies of first editions that have severe condition problems.” Copies of this type have been appearing on eBay since its inception. A signed fifteenth printing of Naked Lunch. With a later signature without an inscription. Beware signed copies of paperback editions of the Grove novels. Take a close look at those signed copies of Cities of the Red Night without a dust jacket or a major flaw like a tear in the dust jacket. You see books like this online all the time. Jeffrey Marks calls books like these “cheater’s books.” Congalton writes, “Rare is the forger who is either confident enough, or wants to make the substantial investment in a very expensive first edition in order to practice their ‘art.’ Rather he will be more likely to buy very inexpensive reprints that can be discarded without substantial loss [when making mistakes].” It is true that books like these are the types of books that non-collectors would bring to readings for signatures since they are the easiest and cheapest to obtain, but be careful buying books of this type. You might never be able to get rid of them. Remember not every collector is as open-minded in approaching books of this type as you are.
The cost factor is actually a point in the favor of the above mentioned Dead Fingers Talk and Yage Letters. As first editions, they are worth over $100. The association of the names also makes it possible to build a history and chronology around the book. If you are getting a book signed, try and get it inscribed to you and dated. The more information the better.
Likewise if you are going to take a flyer on a signed reprint, you may want to buy an inscribed copy. As I mentioned before, and Ken Lopez makes clear, there is a shift in the industry in favor of inscribed copies, because they provide more information to prove authenticity. You might be able to construct some provenance about the book based on the inscription. This makes all the difference in books of this type.
That said, a book collector’s most powerful form of protection against forgeries is a personal bond with a book dealer. Buy from those you know and those you trust. If you can shake the bookseller’s hand when you make the deal, all the better. eBay has a lot of deals, but they have a lot of scams as well. Buying online is dangerous. And it is getting even more hairy lately. Even Abebooks is becoming overrun with the dishonest and inexperienced. The inexperienced are the more common. Buying online is where the decline of the bookman is most keenly felt. And the internet contributes to nurturing inexperience. It is a vicious circle. Too many booksellers do not have the resources, knowledge, or inclination to properly describe or research their stock. Yes, this means a potential deal in your favor, but it also can mean a mistake that costs you money.
The increasingly ridiculous atmosphere of online bookdealing is one reason that I think the issuing of catalogs is on the rise. Megalisters and the inexperienced do not issue catalogs. They are too much of an investment in time and money. Mass posting online is far simpler and cheaper. In addition, nothing will reveal a bookseller’s lack of skill and honesty more quickly than a poorly written catalog description. It takes a disreputable dealer with balls to list his goods in hard copy. The evidence remains and does not disappear into the internet ether. On the opposite end of the spectrum, nothing is quite as useful, reassuring, and, yes, entertaining as a catalog entry by a true bookman. Royal Books, Biblioctopus, Ars Libris, Bauman, Between the Covers, Lame Duck Books. These bookstores and their staffs are all masters of the art. No doubt catalogs cost money to produce and that cost get passed on to you, but you get what you pay for. As a result the books in a professional’s catalog are generally a bit more expensive, but authenticity comes with a price. It is worth the extra cash because in book collecting, provenance that has gained the trust and belief of the book collecting industry is priceless.
As the weeks passed, the number of these limiteds seemed in fact unlimited. A signed / numbered Nova Express popped up on eBay. (pdf of auction) A Ticket That Exploded signed and numbered by Brion Gysin, Burroughs, and Sommerville turned up. (pdf of auction) Let’s take a close look at the Ticket. Forget the fact that such a book has never come to market in my 15 years of collecting. Forget the fact that the Burroughs signatures on all four of these books look identical. Forget the absurdly low price. Forget the fact that Gysin, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Sommerville would all have needed to access these books seemingly at the same time. Suspend your disbelief. Then remember the letter from Sommerville to Ginsberg from May 11, 1965 that mentions signing books with Burroughs. I am obsessed with that letter. Unfortunately the Grove Ticket was published in 1967. Based on the letter, Dead Fingers Talk (1963), Yage Letters (1963), and Nova Express (1964) were all possible. The Ticket fails on that account. Of course the letter might only refer to the Dead Fingers Talk, and the Ticket could have been signed at a later date. There must be a rational explanation, right? It is a crazy world out there for collectors right now.
Some additional research on the part of RealityStudio and the purchaser of the “signed” copies of Nova Express and Ticket That Exploded confirmed that the signatures on the books were forgeries. The seller has refunded the cost of the books and the purchaser, to ensure that the signatures will never be mistaken for the real thing, has added a note to the books themselves. (See scans from the forged Nova Express and the forged Ticket That Exploded.) Note also that several comments pertaining to the situation have been removed from RealityStudio as a result of the revelation.