Provenance! Two Highly Recommended Books on Frauds, Forgeries, and Con Men in the World of Collectibles

Published by Robert Lifson on Tagged Uncategorized

We have often recommended pure reference books to REA bidders relating directly to the field of baseball collecting. It is our great pleasure to do so. But we are sometimes very impressed with books that on the surface seem to have little to do with our hobby, when in fact they actually do. Some of these books tell stories of true crime and fraud in other fields of collecting, and in the process arm us with knowledge and help us better understand crime and fraud in our field.

In the auction world we have the privilege of dealing with many great people, but far too often we also have to deal with various types of criminals, forgers, and con men.  We work closely with law enforcement and are always looking for red flags, but criminals can be very tricky. They are often professionals and their “job” is to cheat the auction houses and to cheat collectors. Our job, in the ordinary course of our business, is to stop them. Fake uniforms, fake autographs, fake memorabilia with fake provenance, various types of financial fraud, title issues; most of the problems are able to be addressed long before items ever go to auction (though the nature of the business is that we’ve never had an auction that did not have an item with a title issue or an authenticity issue on at least one lot even after the auction went live; this comes with the territory). No one would believe some of the crazy things that we have had to deal with over the years, and dealing with criminals has caused us to go out of our way to read dozens of books about crime and fraud in the world of collectibles in the hopes that we can learn something from crimes in other fields that will make us more knowledgeable about our field, make our auctions better, and help us be on the lookout for scams.  Below are links to two books that we think are among the greatest classics of this genre that we have found.  They are about the most sophisticated frauds in the art world and the world of rare documents, respectively.

1. Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art is about fraud in the art world. It is by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo and has just been published by The Penguin Press. We highly recommend this book! It is not about baseball collecting, but there are so many similarities to frauds and con men in all fields of collecting that we felt this book spoke to all collectors. If you’ve ever been suspicious of a memorabilia item, a uniform, or an autographed item, let alone been a victim, this is a book that illustrates how collectibles frauds can be perpetrated and how even the provenance can be faked by a great con man. It is an amazing read (maybe more so for us at REA because we have actually dealt with characters that could be in a book like this) but we think anyone interested in collectibles, authenticity issues, and con men will want to have this volume in their permanent library.  

Here is the Amazon link:

On page 76 the authors of Provenance describe a scene of their fraudulent art seller “at work,” and referred to the “expertise in the con man’s traditional diversionary tactic of changing the subject and deflecting attention from the original question”.  This phrase rang such a loud bell (it could have been written about con men in any field) that we made a point of marking the page.  

Here are a couple of additional excepts we marked, that don’t give anything away about the book, but when we read these passages, made us think so much of con men in the baseball collectibles field that (along with the previous quote) they inspired the idea of this post:

“Social scientists who have tried to chart scammer pathology describe the con man as a combination sociopath and narcissist. Typically, he is impulsive, amoral, and uncontrolled, highly intelligent, detached, misanthropic, grandiose, and hungry for admiration. Alienated and often self-taught, the con man feels unique and superior until he is trapped. Then he claims to be a victim of circumstance or of an uncaring society. He tells police that he has been knackered by circumstance, that his bitterness is a function of society’s failures and the vagaries of fate. Then, on the way to the lockup, knowing that the game is up, he drops all pretence and declares that his victims deserved to be conned, that greed is a fox-trot and it takes two. One such schemer, quoted in The Psychology of Fraud, a 2001 study published by the Australian Institute of Criminology, told his inquisitors that he felt entirely justified: “The victim had it coming. There’s no harm done. He can afford it.” Under questioning, he admitted that the pleasure of the scam was the point of it all.”

Another famous com man, Ferdinand Demara, is quoted by the authors as having two cardinal rules:  “First, always remember that the burden of proof is on the accuser, and second, when you are in danger, attack.”

We have experienced true con men first hand (and even the wrath of con men!) so reading about it in the context of another field (in this case the art world) was particularly fascinating to us.

2. The Morman Murders: A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit, and Death (by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2005). A New York Times bestseller. It takes 576 pages to tell the story of master forger Mark Hofmann, who dealt in rare authentic documents and document forgeries of his own elaborate creation as well. (Forensic testing of 443 examples of Hofmann’s documents ultimately revealed that 248 documents (60%) were authentic, 107 (24%) were forged, and 68 (15%) were undetermined by testing to be authentic or forgeries.) Many of the forgeries (had they been real) were of great significance to the Morman Church and its history. If it weren’t for the murders that Hofmann committed in attempting to cover up his fraud and forgery crimes, the case might not have ever received the attention it did or the commitment of resources by law enforcement, and the certainty and methods of his fraud and forgeries may have never come to light. Hofmann is currently serving a life sentence at the Utah State Prison in Draper for murder.

Here’s an Amazon link to the book:

Mixing the good with the bad, extreme secrecy, extreme intelligence and superior knowledge, accompanied by devotion to legitimate research, successful self-promotion as a scholar and a true mastery of the subject of the fraud, access to and/or ownership of legitimate research archives that have been contaminated by forgeries, unusual financial arrangements, the juggling of debts and doing whatever is necessary to buy time and keep from getting caught, multiple victims with no communication between them, confidentiality agreements (all the better to inhibit possible communication that might raise questions), operating under the names of different individuals (real and imagined), operating under the names of different companies, nurturing close association with  relatives of legitimate material sources (often accompanied by actual dealings, which is of course ideal for the mixing of the “good” with the “bad”),  charm, aggressiveness, persistence, threats when confronted with suspicions, creating distractions, always manufacturing delay tactics, litigation…

These are just some of the “tools of the trade” of the con man, most of which (and more) are amply illustrated in the context of the collectibles world in the books listed above.  We hope you get them, read them, and enjoy them!  These are two of our favorite books in the world!


Robert Lifson


Robert Edward Auctions LLC 

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