The Fortsas Bibliohoax, the anniversary of which is coming up in August, is an unusually clever example of such a game.
In the summer of 1840, many wealthy and prominent book collectors received a short catalog detailing fifty-two books from the library of the late “Count Fortsas” of Belgium, to be sold in Fortsas’s hometown of Binche at an August 10th auction. The selection was small, but its prestige was great. According to the catalog, Fortsas’s collection only included books of which he possessed the only extant copy. If so much as a hint of a book’s existence appeared anywhere else, Fortsas expelled it from his library. In other words, his holdings had the ultimate claim to rarity, and the mere idea of them was catnip to bibliophiles across Western Europe.
The catch? There was no Count Fortsas or book collection to be sold in Binche. The entire stunt was the work of Rénier Hubert Ghislain Chalon, a Belgian military veteran who seems to have enjoyed rare books and practical jokes in equal measure. Chalon’s hoax was brilliant. As a bibliophile, he knew his audience well enough to skillfully exploit its desires. He knew that the supposed collection’s exclusivity made it simultaneously irresistible and impossible to check into. He was fluent enough in book history to invent citations that were plausible, detailed, and desirable on account of authorship, historical context, provenance, or salacious content.1 Moreover, Chalon invented items with specific collectors in mind, dangling each person’s dream acquisition under his nose.2 In fact, he was so successful in creating realistic descriptions that some collectors doubted their singularity, arguing that the same books had previously appeared elsewhere.3
The response to Chalon’s scheme was enormous. Collectors, booksellers, librarians, and curators from across Europe journeyed to the small town of Binche, prepared to spend vast sums on choice volumes or even the entire collection, which others authorized surrogates to bid incredible amounts. Hopeful book buyers became confused upon reaching Binche and finding out that the auctioneer, his address, and Count Fortsas himself were all quite unknown to locals. When signs went up around town announcing that a non-existent local library had acquired the entire collection at the eleventh-hour, Chalon’s marks slowly realized they’d been tricked. Only a few people had been wise enough to ask questions before the sale, though at least one correctly surmised the perpetrator’s identity.4 It’s been said that Chalon himself vouched for Fortsas to his fellow collectors.5
While the truth undoubtedly disappointed many, the rare books world gained something from the affair. Chalon’s bogus catalog quickly became a coveted Philobiblos collectors’ item in its own right, undoubtedly due to the cleverness of the con and the attention it received.6 When Chalon’s co-conspirator, the catalog’s publisher, attempted to reprint it years later, Chalon stopped him with a lawsuit but was unable to prevent the numerous other reprints, facsimiles, translations, and commentaries that have been published over the years.7 A fun, recent contribution to the conversation is the Comte de Fortsas profile on Library Thing. Complied by rare books blogger Jeremy Dibbell of , the profile includes a description of each item in the catalog, English translations, commentary, and an extensive bibliography of all things Fortsas. Which book in Fortsas’s “collection” would you most want on your shelf?
Basbanes, Nicholas A. A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995. P. 118-119.
“Fortsas Bibliohoax.” Museum of Hoaxes. http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/the_fortsas_bibliohoax .
Dibbell, Jeremy. “Member: ComtedeFortsas”. LibraryThing. http://www.librarything.com/profile/ComtedeFortsas July 24, 2008.
Tredwell, Daniel. A monograph on Privately illustrated Books. A Plea for Bibliomania. Quoted by The Museum of Hoaxes in “Fortsas Bibliohoax”.
“The Fortsas Hoax.” Forging a Collection, University of Delaware Library, Special Collections. http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/exhibits/forgery/fortsas.htm. December 21, 2010.
Basbanes, A Gentle Madness, 119-120 and University of Delaware Library, “The Fortsas Hoax”.