Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2021 Issue

A Story of Fraud, Deceit, Forgery and Murder Comes to Its Conclusion at Heritage Auctions

674d8471-18e9-4209-97bf-36581da370f3

Mark Hofmann's forged Oath of a Freeman (Heritage Auctions photograph).

A story of deceit, fraud, forgery, and murder closed perhaps its final chapter in the book rooms at Heritage Auctions last month. This sordid tale goes back 35 years, though its beginnings started over four centuries earlier, in 1638. That is when Stephen Daye, a locksmith by trade, boarded a ship bound for the New World. He had agreed to work for printer Joseph Glover in return for paying his fare. Daye didn't know much about printing, but Glover was there to teach him the ropes.

 

It didn't turn out that way. Glover died on the voyage. Daye's indebtedness now belonged to Glover's widow, Elizabeth, who did not know as much about printing. Nonetheless, Daye, along with his son, took on their responsibility. Daye is best known today for producing the first book printed in what is now the United States, the book commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book. It is estimated he printed 1,700 copies in 1640, but it was not a quality production and the books were well-used. Only 11 copies are known to survive. The last one to sell at auction sold at Sotheby's in 2014 for over $14 million.

 

While this was Daye's first book, it was not the first item he printed. It is known that in 1639, he printed a single sheet of the Oath of a Freeman. This was a loyalty oath British subjects were to make to the King. This (or possibly some sort of atlas he may have printed) is the first printing of any sort in the U.S. portion of America. Not a single copy is known to survive, though for centuries people have searched. That was until 1984. That is when Mark Hofmann walked into the Argosy Book Shop in New York and walked out with a copy, which, along with five other items, cost him all of $25. At least, that is what he said. Over 35 years later, Hoffman's Oath has finally moved on.

 

Bookseller Justin Schiller recalled he first met Mark Hofmann at the New York book fair in 1984. Hofmann picked him out to be his dealer. The reason was that Schiller was a dealer in children's books and that was Hofmann's interest. However, this would quickly turn to something not fit for children.

 

Schiller explains that Hofmann “had a passion for early books.” He also claimed he was the beneficiary of a trust fund. Every few months he would get a payment which enabled him to purchase important books. Hofmann, who was from Salt Lake City, also said that he had made some significant discoveries. These included items of interest to the Mormon church. The church was a buyer, but needed funds for purchases, so, he said, they made him an “archivist.” He could could go through their collections, select non-Mormon items he thought worthwhile, and sell them to raise funds to buy the Mormon items he was finding. He explained to Schiller this was done quietly as otherwise, someone will always object to selling anything, which in turn would have made it impossible for the church to buy the items it wanted. It was a good story.

 

Unbeknownst to Schiller or anyone else at that time, Hofmann was a liar and master forger. The documents he was “finding” he was, in fact, making. As Tyler Measom, Director of the movie Murder Among the Mormons, explained, Hofmann rose from being a mediocre forger to an absolute master. Perhaps this is not surprising, as he said Hofmann forged a coin at age 14 so well that he fooled the U. S. Treasury Department into thinking it was real.

 

Hofmann was making some amazing “finds,” including the infamous Salamander Letter. More about that later. Schiller said he had known Hofmann for about four months when his piece de resistance appeared. That was the Oath of a Freeman. How much would the first document printed in the U.S., of which this was the first copy ever discovered, be worth? Hofmann estimated $50,000. Schiller told him it was worth $1.5 million.

 

Naturally, when something this astonishing appears a couple of questions immediately arise. Where did it come from? Is it real? If something seems too good to be true... you know the rest. Hofmann had an answer. It came from Argosy Books and Hofmann produced a bill of sale to prove it. It showed that he had purchased the Oath of a Freeman and several other items for $25. Evidently, Argosy did not know what it had.

 

That was not nearly enough proof. Schiller then consulted numerous experts to evaluate the Oath. All but one thought it was real, or at least, that there was nothing about it that established it as a fake. The only scientist who disagreed was one who had authenticated the Shroud of Turin, which made Schiller question his judgment. In the process, Schiller, who had a financial deal with Hofmann if the item was sold, spent an enormous sum on authentication and selling, well into six figures. He took it to the Library of Congress, with the price set at $1.5 million. They examined it carefully, and while not confirming its authenticity, stated that there was nothing inconsistent with it being real. Still, they balked. Reportedly, they were concerned about the provenance, title, and price. Schiller took it to the American Antiquarian Society. They wanted it, but not for $1.5 million. They offered $250,000. He turned it down. Not enough.

 

Meanwhile, one of Hofmann's earlier efforts, very good but not quite good enough, was causing some suspicion. This was the Salamander Letter. It was a letter supposedly written by one the three witnesses named in the Book of Mormon. If true, it would have rocked the tenets of the Latter-day Saints church. It implied that founder Joseph Smith had engaged in some magic sort of stuff in the creation of the Book of Mormon. It also claimed that it was not an angel that brought the golden plates to Smith but a white salamander. Ouch. He attempted to sell it to the church, probably thinking they would want to bury it. They did not buy. He did find a believer in collector Steven Christensen. He bought it. Unfortunately for Hofmann, Christensen became suspicious in time and later convinced it was a forgery. Hofmann felt he had to deal with his client's suspicions. His answer was to kill him.

 

On October 15, 1985, Hofmann planted a bomb at Christensen's office. When the latter attempted to pick it up, it exploded, killing him. An hour and a half later, a second bomb exploded at the home of Christensen's business partner, Gary Sheets. The idea was to make it look like Christensen's murder had to do with business dealings, not with Hofmann and the Salamander Letter. It, too, exploded, killing not Gary Sheets but his wife, Kathleen. There was also a third bomb, but it accidentally went off in Hofmann's car, injuring him.

 

With that, police became very suspicious of Hofmann. He was exceptional at faking documents, but not at faking murders. They searched his house. They found the plates for some of his forgeries, along with other tools of the trade, guns, and the name of the firm that created the plate that was used to print the Oath. Now, the experts reassessed their judgment of Hofmann's various works. They found numerous similarities in some of his works not previously noticed as they were not examined together. It all came tumbling down. Utah, as Schiller observed, is “Gary Gilmore” country. Gilmore was the killer who was executed by firing squad. Hofmann decided it was better to plea bargain than go to trial. In return for his life, he agreed to confess. He was sentenced to five years to life. It will be the latter. In seeking early parole in 1988, he wrote a letter to the parole board that showed no remorse. They told him he would never get out. Schiller adds that he tried to hire someone to assassinate the parole board members. I cannot confirm this, but if so, it is understandable why they would tell him you will never get out. Thirty-three years later, Hofmann is still alive, residing in the Utah State Prison at Gunnison. He is 66 years old.

 

How was he able to pull off these forgeries? Both Schiller and Measom were astounded by his skills. He took blank pages from contemporary books so the paper would be authentic. The paper used for the Oath was one of those Daye had used in printing the Bay Psalm Book. He dug up an old book that explained exactly how ink was made in those days and duplicated the process masterfully. He even used chemicals to mimic the aging process. Schiller recounted that to imitate the way ink gradually bleeds through a piece of paper over time so as to be visible on the reverse, he placed his Oath on a screen and ran a vacuum underneath it. He was filled with tricks like that.

 

As for the receipt from Argosy Books, he sneaked a much inferior, obvious imitation of the Oath into their shop with him so they would write it up on a bill of sale as being the Oath of a Freeman without any thoughts it might be the real thing.

 

For the past 35 years, Schiller has been sitting on this document. The mind may know, but the heart resists. He kept open the slight possibility that, against all odds, it actually was real. Schiller said, “It's a nightmare,” and “I've lived with this for 35 years,” “but,” he continued, “inside I had hope there was a slight possibility the oath was real.” Schiller is now well into his 70s and it was time to accept the inevitable. “At this point we must accept the Oath is a forgery.” He put it up for auction. And yet, in hoping the buyer will make it available to researchers, he added that he still hopes there is a slight chance that it will eventually be determined the Oath is real. Giving up a dream that has lasted half a lifetime is hard.

 

The forged Oath of Freeman sold to an anonymous bidder on June 9, 2021, at Heritage Auctions for $52,500, handily beating the estimate of $16,000-$24,000.


Posted On: 2021-07-01 05:53
User Name: AE244155

Thank you to baltobook for noticing the previous mistake on the bookseller's name.


Posted On: 2021-07-01 07:32
User Name: andrewnadell

It was sold to Ken Rendell who donated it to the Grolier Club.


Posted On: 2021-07-01 07:32
User Name: andrewnadell

It was sold to Ken Rendell who donated it to the Grolier Club.


Posted On: 2021-07-01 10:59
User Name: heas8994

Appears to be a very good review of Hoffman and the Oath of Freeman and congrats to Ken
Rendell for buying and giving to the Grolier Club.


Posted On: 2021-07-01 18:20
User Name: JohnWindle

Purchased by Ken Rendell for the Grolier Club collection of fakes and forgeries donated by Rendell. The underbidder was Michael Zinman probably for the AAS.


Posted On: 2021-07-03 09:49
User Name: battledore

An overall good summary of the events that occurred, though omitting the unexpected appearance at auction from “Fine Printed and Manuscript Americana from the Collection of Mrs. Philip D. Sang,” 27 March 1985 (Sothebys NY) a mid-17th century British book containing a transcription of the 1638/9 "Oath of a Free Man" text. Allegedly it was this entry in the Sothebys catalogue that alerted Hofmann to the specific citation of the original broadside from Massachusetts Bay Colony, of which no copy survived. For more detailed analysis, please refer to A JUDGEMENT OF EXPERTS (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society) edited by James Gilreath, 1991. The Hofmann "Oath" was acquired at the Heritage Auction by Kenneth W. Rendell and Shirley McNerney Rendell for donation to the Grolier Club as part of their Collection on the Detection of Forged Handwriting, currently in process.


Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>The Luzzatto High Holiday Mahzor:<br>A Magnificent Illuminated Ashkenazic Prayer Book<br>19 October 2021</b>
    <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>The Luzzatto High Holiday Mahzor:<br>A Magnificent Illuminated Ashkenazic Prayer Book<br>19 October 2021</b>
    <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>The Luzzatto High Holiday Mahzor:<br>A Magnificent Illuminated Ashkenazic Prayer Book<br>19 October 2021</b>
    <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>The Luzzatto High Holiday Mahzor:<br>A Magnificent Illuminated Ashkenazic Prayer Book<br>19 October 2021</b>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 28:</b> Pancho Villa, passport for a news correspondent covering the Mexican revolution, signed, 1914. $1,000 to $2,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 28:</b> Nirvana’s <i>Nevermind,</i> CD insert signed & inscribed days after release by Cobain, inscribed by Novoselic, 1991. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 28:</b> Robert Indiana, <i>The Book of Love,</i> complete portfolio, artist’s proof set, 1997. $100,000 to $125,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 28:</b> Marcel Vertés, Colette, <i>Chéri,</i> two volumes, deluxe edition, signed by the artist, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 28:</b> Virginia Woolf, <i>Orlando,</i> first trade edition, first impression, London, 1928. $1,200 to $1,800.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 28:</b> Mark Twain, receipt for payment of the Mark Twain Public Library Tax, 1908. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 28:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk von Gustav Klimt,</i> portfolio, collotype plates, 1918. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <center><b>The 19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop<br></b>Catalogue 190:<br>Magnificent Books & Photographs<br><b>Free on request</b>
    <b>19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop:</b> William Shakespeare. <i>The Second Folio</i> (1632).
    <b>19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop:</b> Abraham Lincoln. Autograph note on Black troops in the Union Army (1865).
    <b>19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop:</b> Neil Armstrong. The largest known U.S. flag flown to the Moon on Apollo 11 (1969).
    <b>19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop:</b> William Henry Fox Talbot. <i>The Pencil of Nature</i> (1844-1846) the first photo illustrated book.
    <b>19th Century Rare Book & Photograph Shop:</b> Albert Einstein. Letter on relativity and the speed of light (1951).
  • <center><b>Forum Auctions<br>A third selection of 16th and 17th<br>Century English Books from<br>the Fox Pointe Manor Library<br>Thursday 21st October 2021</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Oct. 21:</b> Hawking & Hunting.- Turberville (George). <i>The Booke of Falconrie or Hawking,</i> second edition, Printed by Thomas Purfoot, 1611. £6,000 to £8,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Oct. 21:</b> George Steevens' copy.- Coryate (Thomas). <i>Coryats Crudities Hastily gobbled up in five Moneths travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia...,</i> first edition, complete copy, Printed by W. S[tansby], 1611. £4,000 to £6,00
    <b>Forum Auctions, Oct. 21:</b> Butler (Charles). <i>The Feminine Monarchie: or The Historie of Bees,</i> second edition, Printed by John Haviland for Roger Jackson, 1623. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <center><b>Forum Auctions<br>A third selection of 16th and 17th<br>Century English Books from<br>the Fox Pointe Manor Library<br>Thursday 21st October 2021</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Oct. 21:</b> Brathwait (Richard). <i>The English Gentlewoman, drawne out to the full Body: expressing, What Habilliments doe best attire her…,</i> Printed by B. Alsop and T. Fawcet, for Michaell Sparke, 1631. £1,000 to £1,500.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Oct. 21:</b> Glapthorne (Henry). <i>The Ladies Priviledge,</i> first edition, Imprinted...by J. Okes, for Francis Constable, 1640. £1,000 to £1,500.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Oct. 21:</b> Witchcraft.- F. (H.) <i>A true and exact Relation Of the severall Informations, Examinations, and Confessions of the late Witches, arraigned and executed in the County of Essex,</i> first edition, 1645. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <center><b>Forum Auctions<br>A third selection of 16th and 17th<br>Century English Books from<br>the Fox Pointe Manor Library<br>Thursday 21st October 2021</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Oct. 21:</b> Hobbes (Thomas). <i>De Corpore Politico. Or the Elements of Law, Moral & Politick,</i> first edition, 1650. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Oct. 21:</b> Early steam engine.- Worcester (Edward Somerset, 2nd Marquis). <i>A Century of the Names and Scantlings of such Inventions…,</i> first edition, 1663. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Oct. 21:</b> Cookery.- M[ontagu] (W[alter]). <i>The Queens Closet Opened. Incomparable secrets in physick, chirurgery, preserving and candying, &c,</i> 3 parts in 1 vol., 1674. £1,500 to £2,000.
    <center><b>Forum Auctions<br>A third selection of 16th and 17th<br>Century English Books from<br>the Fox Pointe Manor Library<br>Thursday 21st October 2021</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Oct. 21:</b> Speed (John). <i>An Epitome of Mr. John Speed's Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain,</i> 2 parts in 1, 90 engraved maps, Printed for Tho. Basset, and Ric. Chiswel, 1676. £3,000 to £4,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Oct. 21:</b> Le Boe (Franciscus). <i>Of Childrens Diseases... also a Treatise of the Rickets,</i> first edition, Printed for George Downs, 1682. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <b>Forum Auctions, Oct. 21:</b> Economics.- Locke (John). <i>Several Papers Relating to Money, Interest and Trade,</i> first collected edition, Printed for A. and J. Churchill, 1696. £2,000 to £3,000.
  • <center><b>Gonnelli Auction House<br>Books and Graphics<br>26th-29th of October 2021</b>
    <b>Gonnelli Auction 31, Oct. 28th- 29th:</b><br>Books from XV to XX Century
    <b>Gonnelli Auction 31, Oct. 28th:</b><br>Manuscripts and autographs
    <b>Gonnelli Auction 31, Oct. 28th:</b><br>Artist books
    <b>Gonnelli Auction 31, Oct. 28th:</b><br>Cars & more
    <b>Gonnelli Auction 31, Oct. 28th:</b><br>Magazines
    <b>Gonnelli Auction 31, Oct. 28th- 29th:</b><br>Books from XV to XX Century

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions