LiteratEye #3: Really Great Sermon, Sir; Could I Have Your Autograph?

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, The Big One

Here’s the third installment of LiteratEye, a new series, only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

And, as an added treat, here’s an article about author, W.J. Elvin III, from the Cumberland Times-News that appeared this week.

LiteratEye #3: Really Great Sermon, Sir; Could I Have Your Autograph?
By W.J. Elvin III
February 27, 2009


It began with an innocent question posed on one of the “ask the expert” sites. Someone wanted to know the value of a Superman autograph. The kindly expert explained that Superman was a fictitious character, and that there might be some value to autographs of persons who had played the role.

That got me thinking about fictitious autographs. Not fake autographs of real people but those of, say, Sherlock Holmes or Paul Bunyon or Nancy Drew. I wondered if anyone had tried to sell such a thing.

I asked around. Oddly, the name that came up most often from dealers was “Jesus.”

Now, that poses a dilemma.

Rather than get into whether Jesus qualifies as a fictional character, a fellow might want to do something less likely to cause injury, like diving into a boiling vat of chicken fat. But we can dance around it — certainly an autograph of Jesus is very, very likely fictitious.

The idea is not without precedent, though. Denis-Vrain Lucas did a prison stint in the mid-1800s for forging and selling 27,320 documents signed by many ancient notables – Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Lazarus — including Mary Magdalene. Given the many clues to forgery, such as that the documents were written in French, the fact that Lucas made a substantial sum from his work is a real head-spinner.

“I once had someone in Texas tell me that the one autograph they really wanted was Jesus”™,” replied Ed Bomsey of Edward N. Bomsey Autographs in Annandale, VA in response to my question. His inventory runs from Susan B. Anthony to Thornton Wilder , but when it came to Jesus, “alas I did not have one in inventory.”

Well, Ed, we should put you in touch with the lady who called on Chris Jaeckel of Walter R. Benjamin Autographs, a New York dealer recognized as the oldest such firm in the U.S.

Some years back, “an elegantly dressed woman, probably in her middle fifties, came into the office and, with great excitement, produced her find,” Jaeckel recalled. “She had just returned from a visit to Israel. Driving from Jericho to Jerusalem she had stopped by the side of the road. There, under a rock, she serendipitously found her treasure. It was a handwritten letter, in English, written with a ball point pen, signed by “˜Jesus Christ.”™”

The lady wanted Jaeckel”™s advice on whether to sell the document privately or put it up for auction. Jaeckel subdued an inclination to cause a stir at a prominent auction house by sending her on, delivering the news that it was a fake. “She was not happy, obviously did not believe me, and stormed out of the office.”

Well, let”™s not get too cocksure about this Jesus autograph business being completely off the wall. As it happens, a signed picture of Jesus went up for sale on eBay UK in 2007. The seller didn”™t claim it was authentic, simply offered it. And it sold for about $32 US.

So there”™s money to be made in the fictional autograph racket. And now let”™s look at the big money: a million bucks.

Stephen Koschal, a Florida-based dealer who is not at all publicity-shy, once offered $1-million for the autograph of a space alien. “Hundreds of people claim to have been abducted and taken aboard a UFO,” he told The National Enquirer at the time. Someone, he declared, “must have asked one of these creatures for an autograph.”

Well? “I did get a few people who tried to sell me what they said was an alien autograph,” Koschal told me. “Of course they were not genuine. Never heard from someone who claimed to be abducted and got one. That may come.”

Koschal said his offer was picked up by Russian newspapers, known for an appetite for the bizarre story. That resulted in an “unbelievable” volume of mail, much of it from “ladies who saw a picture of me holding a check for a million dollars. They sent beautifully written letters, many with photos, some nude, asking me to bring them to the U.S. and they would take care of me.”

That one is hard to top. But, of course, no money has changed hands as a result. In that regard, the top story would appear to be the sale of an Eleanor Rigby autograph. Actually, the nearly 100-year-old document was signed only “E. Rigby,” but researchers found a gravestone in a Liverpool cemetery for Eleanor Rigby and claimed to have established a link.

The signature had been in the possession of Paul McCartney. Late last year he donated it to a charity and it was subsequently sold at a London auction house.

The sale price: $177,000.

“If someone wants to spend money buying a document to prove that a fictitious character exists, that”™s fine with me,” McCartney commented at the time.

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  • A LiteratEye Extra: The Mystery of the Missing Fake Author
  • LiteratEye #1: George Washington Lied About Taxes