The Collector: Patriot Games
Bruce Gimelson, a 64-year-old art and antiques dealer in Garrison, N.Y., once bought and sold a letter in which John Hancock, writing on July 6, 1776, proclaimed, “We are finally free from the bonds of slavery.” He also assisted in the sale of a plaster bust of Thomas Jefferson that was sculpted in 1789 by Jean-Antoine Houdin and is now displayed in the parlor at Monticello. In 1987, before Gimelson handled the bust, the piece had sold at a Christie’s auction for $2.86 million.
Three weeks after purchasing the signatures, Gimelson learned that they were the work of Joseph Cosey, one of the most skilled forgers of the 20th century. Cosey was born in 1887 in Syracuse, N.Y., as Martin Coneely. He spent nearly 10 years in prison in his 20s and 30s for a variety of crimes, and served a one-year sentence in 1937 for forgery. But prison did not rehabilitate Cosey; he continued to forge documents until his death in the early 1950s. It is believed that some of his finest handiwork—bogus renditions of papers signed by Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln—remains in circulation, undetected even by experts. The fakes that were discovered have themselves become valuable collector’s items.
Believing the Declaration signers’ signatures were authentic, Gimelson purchased the collection in 1964 from an elderly woman who was living in Pittsburgh, Pa. She previously had sold him genuine autographs by Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Burns. “I did not spend a long time looking at [the signatures collection]. I was in a hurry to get it and get it away from her,” says Gimelson, recalling the $3,800 transaction, for which he had emptied his savings account.
Gimelson, who was living in Philadelphia at the time, met the seller in Pittsburgh at her apartment, which was darkened because she was moving and had canceled the electricity. “The next day I saw the signatures in the sunlight,” he says, “and thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re all by the same guy.’”
The names are written on 56 separate pieces of paper. Each piece was produced in the late 18th century or the early 19th century, and the forger obviously had fussed over the handful of signatures that a collector would scrutinize. The Thomas Jefferson signature is particularly deceptive. The third president was one of the earliest users of an autopen, a mechanical device that enabled him to write his signatures as many as nine times concurrently. The pens that were farther away from his hand produced wider signatures that consumed more space, and the forgery mimics this anomaly. “This guy [the forger] wanted to punish anyone who bought this, and he did,” Gimelson says, laughing.
A flaw in William Whipple’s signature led Gimelson to conclude that the collection was spurious. The Ws were not as well defined as they should have been, and when he studied the Ws in the other signatures, he noticed that they were “eerily consistent.” After making this sickening discovery, Gimelson dashed from his home to his bank to stop payment on the check, but he was too late. The seller already had driven from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and cashed the check at Gimelson’s bank. He had missed her by 15 minutes.
Gimelson found no solace in knowing that he was snookered by one of the best. “I sulked for a long while,” he says. “It was not a pleasant situation.” He was so chagrined that two decades passed before he began showing the signatures to others who visited his office. Late last year, a collector of Cosey’s fakes offered Gimelson $25,000 for the set, but he declined. “I don’t want to sell,” he says. “It’s Cosey’s masterwork, really. In a way, he’s an artist—a criminal artist, but an artist.”