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Forgery in the Music Library: A Cautionary Tale

Article excerpt

In the 1920s and 1930s the celebration of four anniversaries-the centennial of the birth of Stephen Foster (1826-1864), the bicentennials of the births of George Washington (1732-1799) and Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), and the sesquicentennial of the founding of the United States-increased interest in related antiquarian artifacts, and brought the musical contributions of two Pennsylvania composers to the attention of a general audience.1 While increased knowledge and pride in the American musical tradition resulted, the anniversaries also inspired unscrupulous dealers to take advantage of a new market for old manuscripts. Their fraud is still having repercussions today.

As one of the centers of American musical activity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Pennsylvania was renowned for illustrious composers-Francis Hopkinson, Stephen Foster, William Henry Fry, and Francis Johnson to name just a few-and celebrated organizations like the Mendelssohn Club, the Musical Fund Society, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. By the 1930s, their accomplishments had become part of the state's history, and their documents began to be collected by libraries, museums, and antiquarian dealers. Among the dealers in Philadelphia were Harry Dichter, the brothers Henry and Paul Woehlcke, Charles Nagy, and Charles Weisberg, who was the owner of a rare-book store on Walnut Street called Folios.

Weisberg was considered one of Philadelphia's most colorful characters and was nicknamed "the Baron" due to his meticulous appearance.2 While a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he had been proclaimed a "master mind," with a "remarkable faculty for concentration, an excellent memory, unusual command of the English language, keen perception, and extreme facility in the development of new habits."3 By the time he left Penn (he never graduated), he had achieved the best scholastic record in the university's history.

In the mid-1930s, he was using that intelligence to con art connoisseurs and collectors, selling some $2,258 worth of nonexistent rare books and prints to people and institutions all over the United States. His activities did not extend just to fanciful texts; Weisberg also passed dozens of forged checks, and he doctored otherwise insignificant editions of hooks with faked signatures of such American luminaries as Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Katherine Mansfield.4 Most fortuitously, he purchased a significant amount of old paper and documents from the Philadelphia Custom House sale in 1938. His involvement in tampering with materials acquired from that sale led to the entire contents (some forty tons of genuine documents, including many significant records of United States history) being viewed as of questionable authenticity.5 Yet as audacious as these frauds may seem, Weisberg's greatest confidence scheme involved music manuscripts.

THE MUSICAL FUND SOCIETY (MFS)

Founded in 1820, the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia is the oldest music society in continuous existence in the United States. To support its activities, the society acquired a significant collection of printed and manuscript scores dating from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century.6 Among the items the society collected was a group of manuscripts by Francis Hopkinson, signer of the Declaration of Independence, designer of the American flag, poet, satirist, inventor, and one of America's first composers.7

On 16 February 1983, the MFS board authorized the purchase of thirteen Hopkinson manuscripts for $5,000 (later reduced to $3,500) from Hungarian emigre Charles J. Nagy.8 Two years later, on 8 February 1935, Dr. Edward Brooks Keffer9 reported to the MFS board that he had submitted the Hopkinson materials purchased from Nagy to manuscript specialist Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach,10 who believed they were not genuine. In a letter written immediately after the board meeting, the secretary of the MFS, Spencer P. Hazard, wrote to Dr. …