He Steals Them, of Course! by Joseph Hone

Joseph Hone

He Steals Them, of Course!


Certain names carry with them the whiff of brimstone. In the world of bibliophiles and booksellers, perhaps no name is more sulphurous than that of Thomas James Wise. Celebrated in his lifetime as the greatest collector in a generation, an accolade made even more impressive by his humble origins, Wise is today notorious as a forger of Victorian first editions. His signature method of reprinting minor works by major literary authors with imprints antedating the acknowledged first editions had, by the time he was exposed in 1934, duped British and American collectors for fifty years. As a young man on the make, he had established a reputation for unearthing previously unknown rarities. When the exposé landed, the mirage was shattered.

The fraud was uncovered by a pair of young booksellers, John Carter and Graham Pollard, who set to the case with all the energy of Holmes on the trail of Moriarty. Their investigation into Wise is an extraordinary detective story in its own right, involving chemical analysis of paper, identification of fonts, hints of espionage and a stunning final showdown at Wise’s Hampstead townhouse. ‘Connoisseurs of detective method will find it more fascinating than any fiction,’ proclaimed Dorothy L Sayers, reviewing the results of their inquiry in the Sunday Times. 

What Carter and Pollard didn’t know was that Wise was not only a forger but also a thief. The beautiful condition of the early 17th-century playbooks in his collection ought to have raised suspicions. Old quarto playbooks are fragile things. Stitched together without a protective binding, the front and rear leaves are prone to damage, damp, mould or simply being torn away. An early collector may have bound several such pamphlets together between boards, increasing their chances of survival, but at the same time would probably have trimmed down the margins and discarded the original wrappers. To find early modern playbooks fresh as the day they were printed was precisely the sort of challenge that book-hunters of Wise’s eminence enjoyed. 

However, many of the specimens in Wise’s library were not so immaculate as they appeared. Instead of prowling book stalls, hunting down these white whales of bibliography, Wise would buy damaged quartos on the cheap and repair them with leaves taken from other defective copies. The great bookseller Frank Maggs recalled Wise rummaging through his firm’s damaged stock and taking what he needed to make his imperfect books perfect. Sometimes he would swap leaves with fellow bibliophiles and collectors, trading one that was surplus to his requirements for another that he needed. But when Wise could not find the necessary leaves on the market, he took the path of least resistance. He stole them from the British Museum. 

Nobody knows quite how he did it. One theory holds that he took the books home in the evening, where he could remove pages in the seclusion of his study. Because readers of his stature were permitted to leave books out on their desks overnight, it would have been simple enough to sneak a quarto out of the library in a pocket before returning it the following morning, lighter by two or three leaves. 

And yet the crudely torn stubs in the British Museum quartos paint a different picture. The leaves were not removed with the surgical precision of the scalpel, as one might expect had they been taken home. Instead, Wise tore pages from the books by hand. He did not pull them out in one clean motion, but rather inch by inch, as though pausing to listen for footsteps on the floor behind him. Presumably he must have flattened the leaves between the pages of his notebook before returning the quartos to the issue desk and walking out of the front door.

To avoid the resulting books looking like patchwork quilts, Wise engaged the services of his preferred binder, Rivière and Son. This renowned firm would bleach the pages to a uniform shade of café au lait, mend any holes, rebuild margins with new paper and supply any lost text in facsimile, before encasing the whole in supple morocco leather stamped in gilt. Such ruthless interventions seem shocking now. Who today would soak the pages of a 400-year-old Christopher Marlowe quarto in a solution of chlorinated lime? But the ‘making-up’ of perfect books – what modern bibliographers call ‘sophistication’ – was well within the accepted norms of early 20th-century bibliophilia. One will rarely encounter a Shakespeare First Folio that has not been put through this kind of treatment at some point in its long life, with missing leaves supplied from other copies or added in facsimile. One exemplary mongrel in the Folger Shakespeare Library is known to have been patched together with material pinched from at least five other copies – a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of a book (or what some in the trade would nowadays call a ‘Frankenbook’).

For a long time, the assumption has been that Rivière was an unwitting partner in Wise’s crimes. Given that the making-up of perfect books was at that time routine in the trade, Rivière can hardly be blamed for failing to call him out. But the evidence against the firm now looks black. The Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, possesses the first edition of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, bound by Rivière, which Wise sold to the American collector John Henry Wrenn, on whom he palmed off hundreds of duds over a period spanning two decades (and from whose books Wise himself stole superior leaves to bind into his own). Several leaves in this quarto line up with those torn from the British Museum copy. On the final page is an almost imperceptible circular repair corresponding precisely in size and shape to the official British Museum stamp. It is difficult to imagine an innocent explanation. 

Also in the collection at the Harry Ransom Center is a letter, hitherto unpublished but explosive in content, in which an old Rivière underling recalls asking the firm’s manager where Wise was finding all these loose leaves for binding. The answer shocked him: ‘He steals them, of course!’ It hardly seems a coincidence that when Wise presented one of his own books to this manager, whose name was Arthur Calkin, the front endpaper was inscribed: ‘From his best friend Thos J Wise’.

Wise’s thefts from the British Museum were exposed only after his death by a junior librarian and veteran of Bletchley Park called David Foxon. Tasked with cataloguing Wise’s magnificent library, which had been purchased by the British Museum in 1937 but sidelined during the war, Foxon noticed that many of the inserted leaves in the books corresponded to those missing from the British Museum’s copies. Eventually, through a painstaking examination of worm holes, stitch holes, stains and paper imperfections, Foxon was able to deduce precisely which leaves had been taken from which books. His revelations, like those of Carter and Pollard before him, were splashed in The Times in October 1956. A short monograph followed in 1959. It is one of the most innovative and exhilarating works in all English bibliography.

Wise was not a young man when the thefts started and it is tricky to imagine what might have driven him to such folly. Had he been caught, he could have expected a lengthy prison sentence, not to mention humiliation – an acceptable risk for a desperate youngster, perhaps, but a tall price to pay for someone at the height of his fame and fortune. Back when the forgeries were exposed, some of his friends, including George Bernard Shaw, tried to bluster that the whole thing must have been an elaborate practical joke. No such excuses could be made for mutilating books in the national collection. So why did he do it? Greed surely played a part, as did the thrill of deceit. Wise was a nasty piece of work and he delighted in cheating other collectors, even those who considered him a friend. Trading defective books made up with stolen leaves for superior copies made his heart flutter with illicit pleasure. But what he gained in keeping such books for himself is less clear. 

Only last month at the British Library, work commenced on cataloguing the remaining uncatalogued portion of the Wise collection, including the 17th- and 18th-century books. This is cause for celebration: finally, this magnificent collection will be opened to researchers in its entirety. Further mysteries are doubtless lurking among Wise’s books, waiting for some modern-day Foxon to solve them. But the central mystery of why Wise did it, and what made him tick, is a puzzle that calls for a psychologist, not a bibliographer. 

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