The Fortsas Bibliohoax
December 8, 2009 11:04 AM   Subscribe

In 1840, book collectors from around Europe flocked to the Belgian town of Binche hoping to buy at auction the late Jean Nepomucene Auguste Pichauld, Comte de Fortsas's collection of one-of-a-kind books. Unfortunately for them, neither the man nor his collection ever existed. More recently, librarian and bibliophile Jeremy Dibbell posted the contents of the Fortras Catalogue to LibraryThing with English translation as well as an introduction to the collection. Scans of the original catalogue can be found on Google Books. posted by brundlefly (10 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
That's a really good trick. Did they ever figure out who pulled it off? If so, I would like to give him a posthumous high five.
posted by oinopaponton at 11:18 AM on December 8, 2009

Should have read the whole thing. Renier Hubert Ghislain Chalon (1802-1889), I salute you.
posted by oinopaponton at 11:26 AM on December 8, 2009

Did they ever figure out who pulled it off?

FTA: "The man behind the hoax was a local antiquarian named Renier Hubert Ghislain Chalon (1802-1889). The planning that had gone into the deception was incredible. He had carefully researched the interests of all the major bibliophiles in Europe in order to ensure that they would make the long and fruitless trek to Binche. And he had done all this merely for the sake of a practical joke. The hoax proved not to be a total loss for its victims. The catalog they had received itself became a highly coveted collector's item. Within a few decades it had more than quadrupled in price."
posted by effbot at 11:26 AM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm still confused as to how many of these books actually had existed at one time or another, or whether they were all complete fabrications. But still, very funny. Especially, "Mes campagnes aux Pays-Bas", which I hope is what I think.
posted by Sova at 11:45 AM on December 8, 2009

N Necronomicon? Quel dommage!
posted by tommasz at 11:49 AM on December 8, 2009

Related: I'm in possession of a lost, unpublished Borges short story about a man who fabricates an auction catalog of imaginary books. I will be reading the story aloud on New Year's Eve at 4pm from the grounds of the church in Biche, Belgium.
posted by Nelson at 11:52 AM on December 8, 2009 [6 favorites]

I'm confused what his (pseudo) criteria was - he only had books which no one else owned. Does that mean by edition? Certainly because he has a copy of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy which is the most popular book of the Middle Ages. I wonder if this could be pulled off today - a collector buying up all copies of a low print run art book1 and destroying all but one or two.

1. Such as the 26 copies of the Lettered Edition of Little, Big. If only!
posted by stbalbach at 1:32 PM on December 8, 2009

It was supposed to be the Consolation of Philosophy printed by famed 15th Century printer Arend De Keysere. Books printed before the 16th Century are especially prized by book collectors. What makes it so unique isn't the text inside but that it was printed so early.
posted by Kattullus at 8:48 PM on December 8, 2009

Great post, and what a story—I'd love to have been in Binche that glorious day!
posted by languagehat at 11:46 AM on December 9, 2009

This brings back memories .. Back in 2005 I received a catalogue from a bookdealer, R.A. Gilbert, who explained that he was retiring from business and selling off the books from his personal collection. This, he wrote, was the last catalogue he would issue, and it contained a hundred special items:

Every one of them is unique .. Acquiring such items again would be impossible, but however much they may appeal to me (and many of them unquestionably do), circumstances preclude my retaining any of them. The descriptions I give are, I trust, both accurate and informative. Further interpretation of particular provenance, and any conclusions that may be drawn from such, would be, for me, pure speculation, and I have, with some reluctance, avoided the temptation. Others are welcome to attempt this, but I regret that I am no longer willing to enter into correspondence over such matters. Even so, I trust that this catalogue will give to them, and, indeed, to all of those who receive it, as much pleasure as its compilation has given to me.

The items in the catalogue were, indeed, remarkable. Most of them didn't specially appeal to me, though I could appreciate their rarity, but there were one or two items which fitted my particular collecting interests perfectly -- so perfectly, in fact, that it felt almost as if they had been designed for me. The prices were high, but that hardly seemed to matter. I read the catalogue through several times with mounting excitement, and then picked up the phone to order the items I wanted.

And -- well, you can guess the rest. The catalogue was a hoax; none of the items existed; and I had been completely and utterly fooled. The only consolation was that everyone else who had received a copy of the catalogue had been taken in, just as I had. (Or so Mr Gilbert assured me, but perhaps he was just being kind.)

The funny thing is that when I look at the catalogue now, the hoax seems obvious. Some of the items are just too good to be true; others are frankly implausible, and one or two contain hidden jokes which give the game away. But at the time, I didn't suspect a thing. (Indeed, when I was told it was a hoax, I couldn't believe it at first: 'but .. but .. it can't be!') The moral, I suppose, is that being a book collector can cause you to suspend your critical judgement. I have absolutely no doubt that if I'd been around and collecting in 1840, I'd have been fooled by the Fortsas catalogue just like everyone else.
posted by verstegan at 2:14 PM on December 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

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