BULL STREET - The art of the Con

Thomas James Wise, Collector and Author Extraordinaire

Thomas James Wise was born on October 7, 1859. For the most part, his forbearers were in the jewelry trade and for their time they had done reasonably well. Wise left school at the age of 16 and went to work for Herman Rubeck & Co, in London, a firm specializing in essential oil used primarily for flavorings and perfumes. At about this same time, Wise in spite of his youth started to collect first editions of great literary masterpieces such as Shelley’s, “The Cenci and Thomas Moore’s, “The Epicurean.” In order to insure that he had enough money left of from his $6 per week salary, Wise walked to work and often did not eat lunch and his hours when he wasn’t on-the-job were most often spent in bookstores and stalls.

Wise soon added more of Shelley’s works, some of which were extremely limited editions to his collection. Moreover, he searched out Shelley’s descendents and in that way coming to find hard to purchase copies at little or no cost. During this period, he also began collecting works by Robert Browning and became the secretary of the Browning Society in London. It was not too much later that Wise also became the Shelly society’s publication director. Wise was prolific in that job and soon had bankrupted the organization by his issuance of some thirty odd publications on the subject of Browning’s works in seven years. It was through people he met during that time that Wise began a life of crime by counterfeiting numerous first editions and Browning, Keats and Shelly.

Wise also acquired a partner during that period that was every bit as smart when it came to these author’s works as was he. His name was Harry Buxton Froman and he also shared Wise’s love of fine manuscripts, and the two came to the determination that the most efficient many to pursue their expensive hobby would be the issuance of addition first edition copies that were carefully aged and forged. Their first joint effort was a rip-off of the “Life of Percy Bysshe Shelly published supposedly by Edward Dowden. The fearsome twosome published “Poems and Sonnets” that was edited by the fabled but non-existent Philadelphia illusion, Charles Alfred Seymour from the Philadelphia Historical Society.

Some demand was created for the work and it was sold for a substantial profit. Excited by their early success, the Wise-Froman team started to published counterfeits and frauds by the boatload. The deadly duo were soon all over the place and were doing Tennyson, George Elliot, Matthew Arnold, Rossetti, William Makepeace Thackeray, Edward Fitzgerald, and William Morris with reckless abandon. However, as they rolled along they were also picking a band of quiet critics who were literally watched knowingly as the partners in crime hurled themselves toward their ultimate destruction. However, while there were some in the know that knew exactly what these forgers were up to, most of the literary folks in London didn’t have a clue. “Wise is still proceeding on his wild career of reprinting or pirating Browning, Shelley, Swinbourne, Etc.”[60]

Moreover, as the price of crime spiraled higher, the sophistication with which the duo operated became every more sophisticated. These were indeed fast learners and they became supreme experts at their craft of forgery. They gifted copies of their works to the British Museum adding legitimacy to their ploy. In another sophisticated public relations stunt they placed on of their forgeries into an auction at Sotheby’s and then bid it back at an outrageous price. Thus they had establishing a market for a heretofore-unknown literary work. Moreover, they would place insertions regarding their forgeries into books at the “National Gallery” where they would obviously be discovered by literary researchers.

Wise, now 32, married and moved to Ashley Street; this seemed to create a new urgency in Wise to bring home more money, counterfeit more documents and to step up his already frenetic pace of nefarious activities. He was now a family man as well. The fact that he lived on Ashley Street was a large uptick in his life as well. He started stealing substantial quantities of high-grade material from the British Museum, at least 200 leaves. For the most part, these were inserted in various items that Wise sold, however, some were kept for his burgeoning collection. Wise had really become such a slime ball that when bookbinding jobs were sent to him, he would also steal the original leaves and replace them with his own forgeries.

He called his home library, the “Ashley Library”; in reality however, it was quite an impressive room. By this time it had grown in scope and in size. Wise had learned some new tricks of the trade by this time, he was now selling first editions of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which were not first additions but made to look like them. He had authored work in the style of Tennyson such as the imaginary “Idyll’s of the Hearth and signed them with a style that closely resembled the author that know one ever was able to tell the difference. Moreover, he had now become the editor of the Notes on Recent Book Sales section of the Bookman, a highly regarded London book dealers expertizing magazine. Naturally, Wise used this pulpit to push his own forgeries. In a further move in that direction he also got involved with the Society of Archivists and Autograph Collectors and soon became their expert in charge of works by Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens. This was like letting the fox watch the chicken coup and Wise took advantage of the opportunity.

Wise now seemingly had the power to create illusionary masterpieces at will and have them become totally accepted as unique and previously unheard of works by the original authors. Wise now had numerous platforms to use in touting his own forgeries. In one piece written for the Bookman in 1894, he was able to push the following illusionary works, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portugeuese”, Matthew Arnold’s, “Saint Brandan”, Geist’s, “Grave”, William Morris’, Sir Galahad and Hapless Love, Ruskin’s, The Scythian Guest and the “Queen’s Gardens”, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s, “Verses”, and “Sister Helen”, Tennyson’s “Lucretius”, Robert Browning’s, “Gold Hair”, George Eliot’s, “Agatha” and Swinborne’s, “Siena[61]. The man’s productivity had become literally prodigious and it seemed that the more he produced the more aggressive he became.

However, Wise was not being much of a husband and his wife left him and he moved from Ashley Road to George’s Road in Kilburn, London, a place of somewhat more convenience. He spent little time worrying about the breakup up his marriage and only rededicated his substantial energies to ever more forgeries. In that year he was able to turn out more works by Tennyson, numerous copiers of books he attributed to Swinbourne. That year he began to sell author’s proofs’, which had little value as “Special First Editions” which, nobody at the time had ever heard of. However, he started a campaign to have his new invention accepted as an even better offering than the real thing. This concept greatly increased Wise’s ability to coin money and he expanded this option and was able to steal substantial addition sums with this ruse.

As time went on, he remarried moved his residence and library once again began creating never before heard of copies of the unknown and non-existent works of Robert Louis Stevenson. By this time he had become wealthy and he no longer needed to walk the criminal walk as often as before. Now more conservative he found new and more foolproof methods of stealing money. He thought that copyright laws were only for the stupid and he proceeded to publish numerous volumes of works that were owned and licensed to others.

In spite of a career that including forgery, theft and disloyalty, Wise was elected to the presidency of the Bibliographical Society in 1922 and a piece was written along with his installation saying that he had “easily the foremost Private Library in England. It is a permanent and priceless addition to our knowledge of the authors of whose book they treat.”[62] Eventually that library would contain approximately 6,000 works of various categories. Moreover, Wise was becoming somewhat of a celebrity and soon was elected “Honorary Fellow of Worcester College which is part of the prestigious, Oxford University. However, that was only the beginning; two years later Wise received an honorary M.A. from the same school.

His was on a roll and also after many years of trying to know down the doors, was finally accepted as a member to the Roxburghe Club, the most elite of all the English clubs for book collector’s of the fact that he was in the business of buying and selling books, which was barred by the organization’s charter. However, he had become such a power within English literary circles by this time, his nomination had become assured. Moreover, he indicated to the club’s board of directors that he was not in the business of buying and selling literary works for profit faithfully promised not to change this fact.

As honors continued to be heaped upon Wise, a small break in the dam occurred. In 1933, John Carter and Graham Pollard had published a work, which was entitled, “An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain XIXth Century Pamphlets. Carter had tested numerous works with state of the art chemical dating techniques and determined that no less than 50 of Wise’s forgeries. Among other things, they found that the type of wood pulp used by Wise had not been in existence at the time the forgeries were produced. While he was not directly accused, the implications were evident and he had now been firmly put on the defensive.

Wise was confronted and could not explain any of the acquisitions. He attempted bribery, which didn’t work followed by a diversion, which was successful for a time. He blamed whatever forgeries existed on a former partner, H. Buxton Froman. The Enquiry was published and it noted that, “In the whole history of book collecting, there has been no such wholesale and successful perpetration of fraud as that which we owe to this anonymous forger. It has been converted into an equally unparalleled blow to the bibliography and literary criticism of the Victorian period by the shocking negligence of Mr. Wise.”

Things soon got worse were really unraveling in a hurry when one of Wise’s assistants, in order to get himself off the hot seat pretty much said that his boss had been lying about everything. Wise stopped answering his critics concerned that this would only cause them to unload more unanswerable facts onto the table. He resigned his memberships claiming that he had becoming seriously ill, went into seclusion and in 1937, he died.



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