The Rare Book Trade - "Govern Yourselves Accordingly"
By Greg Gibson
This was supposed to have been a review of last weekend's Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair. But the event went so smoothly, and was such a success, that there isn't really much to say about it. Load in and setup proceeded without a hitch. The venue was roomy and well lit, and a steady and enthusiastic crowd kept us on our toes all weekend, dealing with librarians, private collectors and even a smattering of that most sought after demographic, young people.
Almost everyone made money. I had dinner Sunday night with two dealers who each sold over $100,000, and now I have a case of indigestion that will probably last all week.
Fortunately the fair's promoter, Louis Collins, gave me a couple of letters to auction off as a fundraiser for the ABAA Benevolent Fund, so I can write about something other than my jealousy and bile.
Many years ago, when I was a fledgling book dealer, I received a remarkable offer from a gentleman in the UK who had found some books at an estate sale. He knew they were valuable, but he had no one to sell them to. He'd found my address in AB Bookman's Weekly. Would I be interested in... Of course! I mean, these were terrific books. All I had to do was send the postage so he could ship them to me on approval. But then we got to talking and next thing I knew I was sending him a check for the whole lot - $150 for about $1500 worth of books. A big deal back then. Of course, the books never arrived. Just a terse reply to my complaint from the “seller,” who revealed himself to be a nastier fellow than he'd seemed at first. “Well, you were ready enough to rip me off, weren't you Sunshine? $150 Yankee Dollars for all those books. Now the shoe's on the other foot and you're squealing like the greedy pig you are.”
It's the kind of mistake you only make once, but clearly there are enough people like me, sufficiently innocent or greedy, or sufficiently innocent and greedy, to keep crooks like my English correspondent in business.
David Holt was one of the best known book crooks of our era. He'd led a relatively normal life until he bugged out, deserting a wife and kids, stealing his grandmother's savings bonds and his company's stock certificates, and fleeing to New Zealand, only to be extradited and slapped with a jail sentence for securities fraud. Talk about a mid-life crisis!
After he got out of jail Holt began concentrating on the book world.
His MO was familiar. He didn't steal books so much as play on our lust for them, attempting to extort payment or delivery money for very attractively priced books that he did not own and had no intention of delivering. His particular innovation was that he focused his efforts on higher end dealers in ABAA and ILAB rather than schlubs like me. He worked from New Zealand, Eastern Europe, and possibly Russia, and he adopted several aliases, most notably the persona of an elderly Swiss antiques dealer named Frederick Buwe. Originally he ran his scams by mail, but when the Internet came along the opportunities for fraud expanded exponentially.
ABAA security czar John Crichton had a few run ins with him in the mid 90s, but it was Ken Sanders who made a star of David Holt.
He went after Holt like an old fashioned wild west sheriff, and it soon became a personal duel between the two men, reaching its apogee with Holt's threat to cut Sanders's balls off. (You can't make this stuff up!) For several years Holt and his aliases and cons dominated the book news, climaxing in the tragic murder of New York dealer Svetlana Aronov and the rumor, never substantiated, that Holt and his Russian mob friends might have had a hand in it. Ken devoted enormous amounts of time and energy – and no little personal risk – to the job of neutralizing Holt and other malefactors, warning us of a new scam nearly every week, and urging us repeatedly to “Govern yourselves accordingly.”
The funny thing is, I never heard of anyone who was actually fooled by Holt. If anybody knows of a colleague who was successfully victimized by this creep, I'd like to hear about it. But I suspect that Ken's labors kept him at bay.
Anyway, here are the two letters being offered by Louis Collins. They are classic examples from Holt's “middle period” when he was living in Latvia, shortly before he began concentrating on Internet fraud. My favorite is the first edition of the Patrick Gass 1807 account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, being offered for $245 - “postpaid.”
Do I hear any bids?
Posted on Bookman’s Log, presented here by permission of the author. Pictures: Bookman’s Log.