When six original Oscar Wilde manuscripts surfaced in New York in April, they were expected to fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. But soon doubts were cast on their authenticity — and a dark tale emerged of greed, forgery and foul play stretching back to the 1920s. Anthony Gardner reports
The New York Antiquarian Book Fair is the most exciting event of its kind in the world. This year’s, held in a hall on Park Avenue, drew a particularly glamorous crowd, following a pronouncement in American Vogue that book-collecting was the fashionable hobby of the moment. Among the works for sale were a fourth folio of Shakespeare’s plays and a first edition of Frankenstein; but for curiosity, little could compete with the three leather-bound volumes being touted in that last week of April by the owner of a small shop in Greenwich Village.
Doing the rounds of the dealers’ stalls, Kim Herzinger explained that the volumes contained six Oscar Wilde manuscripts recently inherited by one of his clients. Here in the Irish genius’s own hand were the opening of A Woman of No Importance; a fragment of another play, never published or produced; a letter; a poem; the essay The Tomb of Keats. Most exciting of all, the cache included the manuscript of one of Wilde’s best-loved stories, The Happy Prince, which even if sold separately could be expected to fetch £200,000 or more – provided it was genuine.
And there was the rub. Because some Wilde manuscripts have a history that is chequered to say the least; and none of the dealers was more aware of this than Ed Maggs, proprietor of one of London’s oldest-established booksellers, Maggs Bros of Berkeley Square. Examining the pages of The Happy Prince, Maggs came to the conclusion not only that the manuscript was “wrong” (as dealers commonly describe fakes), but that its origins lay in a batch of papers that had caused embarrassment to some of the book world’s most distinguished experts ever since the 1920s – his own family firm among them. It is a story involving avarice, forgery, two of France’s leading authors – and very possibly Wilde’s prizefighting, poetry-writing nephew and his beautiful surrealist wife( cont. from Sunday Times )
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