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Oct. 20, 2023
With the advent of online auctions, forgers have been very busy with Edgar Allan Poe, and buyers should be especially wary of claims of authenticity that are often worth no more than the paper on which they are printed.
Genuine autographs of Poe are very rare. Full signatures are valued at over $10,000, and even less than ideal examples of his letters now begin at prices of $50,000, with better examples reaching $150,000 and beyond. Manuscripts of his literary works are even more prized, and worth far more.
Edgar Allan Poe has been famous ever since he published "The Gold-Bug" in 1843, and an enduring household name since "The Raven" first appeared in 1845. His tendency to court controversy, his series of personal tragedies, and especially his untimely and mysterious death in 1849 created a strange alchemy that mixed a mythologized version of his life with his writings, one that still holds power today. Many people eagerly sought Poe's autograph even during his lifetime, and Poe was usually gracious enough to comply.
Poe’s letters and literary manuscripts have been increasingly cherished as high-points of many a collection of American authors. The demand for manuscript material by Poe has always exceeded the supply. With his death in 1849, the supply became forever fixed, but the interest in obtaining that personal sense of connection that we get in holding something he wrote with his own hands continues to expand. To fill this gap, forgers are happy to oblige and pocket whatever money they can by misleading the inexperienced—and those whose natural wariness might be dulled by optimistic enthusiasm.
Poe was himself interested in handwriting and autographs. Beginning in the Southern Literary Messenger for February 1836, he began a series loosely known today as “Autography,” in which he light-heartedly purported to analyze the handwriting and signatures of various famous writers of the day. Each entry was accompanied by a woodcut copy of the person’s signature, the cost of which was emphasized in advertisements for the magazine.
Poe wrote articles analyzing the handwriting of other famous writers of the day for the magazines Southern Literary Messenger (left) and Graham's Magazine (right).
He repeated the joke in Graham’s Magazine in 1841 and 1842, and with a somewhat greater emphasis on criticism in the 6-part series “The Literati of New York City” in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1846. The two installments in Graham’s prominently bear his own signature, although in an overly elaborate style that is clearly intended to impress and is not at all typical of his usual autograph.
Over the years, many biographies, articles and collections have been illustrated with facsimiles of Poe's signature, his letters and literary manuscripts. These have served as models for forgers.
Poe’s signature had first been reproduced in a public form in 1843, in an article for the Philadelphia Saturday Museum, but the huge format of the newspaper, and the limited circulation, made that rare item broadly unavailable in later years. It survives today in only a handful of copies.
With technological improvements in printing, and eventually with photographic reproductions, reference examples of Poe’s handwriting in these forms became more and more common. A set of Poe’s letters to E. H. N. Patterson, beautifully printed in 1898 as facsimiles in rich brown ink on Japan paper, have sometimes been mistaken for originals.
Authentication of Edgar Allan Poe Manuscripts
Authenticating historical documents is not for the faint of heart. Even scholars should focus on subjects within their area of specialty. Authentication must be approached with a wide range of skills and expertise, and more than a dose of humility. Much of the evidence is necessarily subjective, and it must also be acknowledged that there is an inherent imbalance in the argument over a document’s authenticity purely judging by a document itself. It may be possible to form a strong, even conclusive case against authenticity, but the case in favor is chiefly an absence of the case against it. Whenever possible, external evidence should be sought, ideally a verifiable chain of ownership, but attempts to establish such additional documentation are not without their own perils.
Even experienced scholars can make errors in provenance. The only surviving manuscript of Poe’s poem “The Bells,” now in the Morgan Pierpont Library in New York, has been known since at least 1884, when a facsimile was inserted as an illustration in a multi-volume edition of Poe’s writings. The revered Poe scholar Thomas Ollive Mabbott, in his definitive edition of Poe’s poems, stated confidently that the manuscript was the one that Poe sent to Sartain’s Magazine for publication, and specifically dismissed “a manuscript of ‘The Bells’ in Annie's family” with the statement that it “probably represents confusion of memory” (Mabbott, Poems, 1969, p. 439, n 17).
A portion of Poe's "The Bells" only authentic surviving manuscript.
That assumption remained as authoritative until 2012, when I traced the trail of ownership and provided a conclusive case that it was indeed the manuscript that Poe had sent to Mrs. Annie Richmond, or to her brother, Bardwell Heywood (“Bells, Bells, Bells, Bells, Bells, Bells, Bells,” Poe Studies, 45:108-109). While the manuscript is still authentic, it shows the importance — and challenge — of establishing provenance.
Having deeply studied Poe’s life and writings for more than a decade, I somewhat reluctantly dipped my toe into the field of detecting Poe forgeries in 2000, when, along with my co-editor, Burton R. Pollin, I began an eight-year project to revise and update the standard edition of Poe’s letters.
Since the original edition of 1948, new letters had appeared and questions had been raised about some entries. In many cases, it was necessary to render decisions only based on poor photocopies or nothing more than text, where originals could not be located or accessed. It was a daunting task, but also very good training.
Authenticating "The Conqueror Worm”
My abilities in this regard were particularly tested in 2013, when a previously unknown manuscript of the iconic Poe poem “The Conqueror Worm” appeared for sale from a modest auction house in Marion, Massachusetts. The buyer, an experienced collector with a very fine collection, won the bidding and purchased the manuscript for $300,000, with the agreement that it would be examined and authenticated by a number of experts.
With no documented history of how it came to be in the possession of the seller, other than the claim that it had been in his family for generations, the others who were present were hesitant to render a judgement in favor of the manuscript being authentic. My own money was not at stake, but carefully groomed yet fragile reputations were on the line.
I had already done a textual study of the lines the manuscript contained, and I had a tentative lead that suggested that the manuscript had been examined by another Poe scholar about 1909. Seeing the manuscript in person raised my confidence that the paper and writing were correct, but there is no easy scientific test that proves a document as genuine, and some of those that help are very expensive and even destructive. With time, and a certain amount of luck, I was able to establish the document’s provenance as the draft Poe sent to Graham’s Magazine for the initial publication in the issue for January 1843. If the manuscript were to go to auction today that provenance would probably double the original value.
Dalshire International's “Annabel Lee” Forgery
In June, a friend who is a prominent Edgar Allan Poe collector asked for my opinion on Dalshire International Lot 15 in their June 21, 2023 LiveAuctioneers auction. Headlined “Edgar Allan Poe Signed Handwritten Poem Annabel Lee,” the item purported to be an original manuscript of "Annabel Lee" (although it was only the first three of the six stanzas that the full poem contains), written and signed by Poe.
No provenance was offered that might establish a chain of ownership leading back to Poe; consequently, the only way to authenticate the document was the document itself.
Although it is never ideal to judge a document only from a photograph, almost immediately it was clear that this “Annabel Lee” manuscript could not be genuine, even though it was said to be “Forensically authenticated by Guaranteed Forensic Authenticators” (GFA), a company that I had never heard of before. No amount of mere claims of expertise would be sufficient to cover the clear difficulty the writer of the manuscript was having controlling the presumably metal nib pen dipped in ink and writing on an unlined sheet.
No Genuine Poe Manuscript Characteristics
There are five surviving manuscripts of "Annabel Lee," all with well-documented histories and of undoubted authenticity. (The poem is the last one he is known to have written and was not published until after his death.)
The individual letters in the Dalshire document bore a cursory resemblance to Poe's writing, which one should expect from a forgery, but the lines of the poem waved up and down oddly, suggesting that someone was intently focused on imitating those letters and not on writing straight across the page. Poe did not need to think about how to form the letters, and was accustomed to using such paper, both lined and unlined.
The Dalshire International forgery of "Annabel Lee" (left) was copied from the first half of a 4-page foldout facsimile of a genuine manuscript in Poe's hand (right), the "Thompson" manuscript, published in George Edward Woodberry's 1909 book, Life of Poe. Both have the first line of the second stanza as "She was a child and I was a child,". Poe wrote "I was a child and she was a child," in all other known manuscripts. Compare the natural straightness and flow of Poe's actual handwriting to the struggling, uneven forgery. And why would Poe sign after writing only the first half of the poem?
All five surviving manuscripts are on the bluish paper that Poe commonly used in 1848 and 1849 for various manuscripts that still survive. The text of the Dalshire manuscript seems to have been written specifically to fit on a small page suitable for framing, presumably removed from a book of the appropriate era for the sake of having old paper.
Strangest of all, there are two embossed blobs of wax, hardly enough to call seals, at opposing corners and with no apparent purpose. Poe used sealing wax for letters, in an era before the availability of envelopes, and sometimes to attach shorter pages together to make a long roll manuscript for publication. The wax elements on the Dalshire manuscript seemed, however, ornamental rather than serving any practical function.
There are two signatures on the page, which is odd all on its own. The poem has a signature as the byline, under the heading, and also at the bottom of the page. Neither signature is convincing.
The manuscript also lacked a provenance in the listing. In contacting the auction house, I was told only that it had come from the collection of a gentleman in Chicago, which is really no provenance at all. (It must be noted, of course, that a provenance can be invented out of whole cloth. The trick is to have one that also has supporting documentation.)
I knew that several of the manuscripts of the "Annabel Lee" had been reproduced in facsimile, and from analyzing the text it was clear that the item offered by Dalshire was copied from the "Thompson" manuscript now in the library of Columbia University. That manuscript was reproduced in facsimile by George Edward Woodberry in his 1909 Life of Poe.
To make it large enough to read easily, the long manuscript was presented as two fold out pages. By an amazing coincidence, the first fold out page ended right where the manuscript that was being sold did. That detail makes the connection clear. The signature at the end eliminates the possible explanation that what was being offered for sale was an incomplete manuscript.
My concerns were definite. Could the auction house address them?
The Harvard University Houghton Library manuscript of "Annabel Lee," written on the blue lined paper Poe usually wrote manuscripts on. The second stanza starts "I was a child and she was a child," like all other known "Annabel Lee" manuscripts except the Thompson one reproduced in the book Life of Poe that the forgery was copied from.
The Empty Assurances of Dalshire and GFA
I was able to reach John House, the owner of Dalshire Intl., by phone. I let him speak first, to make his case as best he could. Repeatedly, I was assured that the document had been "forensically" validated by GFA, without really explaining what forensic tests had been performed, and with nothing that explained the strange aspects of the document.
I also reached out to Steve Rocchi, the CEO and primary authenticator at GFA. He provided the same assurances of expertise, but without much forensic evidence to back them up. I was also a bit surprised by his repeated references, verbally and in the certificate of authenticity document he shared, to the document having been written with a “drip” pen rather than a “dip” pen. I offered to evaluate their database of what they considered authentic Poe manuscripts, against which their investigations were based. Rocchi was polite, but my offer was declined.
GFA's Certificate of Authenticity and details reports for their certification of the Dalshire"Annabel Lee" forgery, GFAA-8005. The Ink and Document Report states incorrectly that it was written with a "Drip Pen," not a Dip Pen. That does not appear to be a typo, since drip pen is what GFA always calls dip pens.
In the course of my investigation, Steve Cyrkin of AutographLive sent links to more supposed Poe documents that had also been "forensically verified" by GFA. Every one of these was a laughably poor forgery.
Even without my personal experience, no one seeing an authentic Poe manuscript and comparing it to these should be the least bit fooled. There are similarities between them that suggest they were all created by the same hand; a hand that did not belong to Poe. Poe’s manuscripts are typically noted for their neatness, while these are positively sloppy.
The Manuscript Was Fake, but the $8,000 Was Real
This “Annabel Lee” manuscript was not written by Poe. With a listed estimated value of $100,000-$120,000, still very low had it been authentic, Dalshire sold it for $8,000 — this is not a case of a dubious item selling for a trivial amount.
I contacted LiveAuctioneers to provide my concerns, but I was not able to have the auction stopped. An eye on profits tends to overwhelm all other considerations. Assuming that the auction ensnared a genuine buyer, and the money for the sale price was exchanged, that buyer was cheated.
If this buyer should step forward, he or she should demand a full refund.
About the Author_______
Jeffrey A. Savoye has been studying the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe for more than 40 years. A scholar with an international reputation, he has published more than fifty articles on Poe in peer reviewed journals, primarily in the Edgar Allan Poe Review. He is an honorary member of the Poe Studies Association and the only surviving editor of the standard edition of Poe’s letters (The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Gordian Press, 2008). In the course of his research efforts, he has personally examined dozens of original Poe documents, and a number of forgeries. Having done a presentation at a Poe conference in Boston in 2022 on the authentic manuscripts of “Annabel Lee,” the author is currently preparing that paper for publication.