Forgery in the Music Library: A Cautionary Tale
Anderson, Gillian, Haines, Kathryn Miller, Root, Deane, Van Winkle Keller, Kate, Wolf, Jean, Young, Brad, Notes
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 books 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 1933, 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 Keffer (9) 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. Keffer, requesting details of the authentication with a view to the society's counsel taking action. On 19 February 1935, Keffer wrote in reply to Hazard:
Mr. John Tasker Howard, at my house, first doubted the authenticity of these holographs--but Nagy did not believe him, as members of the Hopkinson family passed on them--the Historical Society passed on the paper and my father had them passed on by some sources unknown to me. It was only on Howard's insistence, and then on my own, directly with Nagy, that I got him to go to Washington for a check up.... Mr. Nagy finally got a written opinion from the Treasury Department, which I saw. It meant ruin to him, as all his funds were in more fake holographs.... (11)
It is difficult to understand why Keffer went to Rosenbach. He already had heard from both musicologist John Tasker Howard (12) and the U.S. Treasury Department that the manuscripts were fakes. In an unpublished memoir written in the 1950s, Howard described in great detail why he questioned their authenticity. (13) He had been invited to talk about the significance of the manuscripts at a public announcement of their purchase planned for May 1933. By way of preparation, in April of that year he examined the fourteen "Hopkinson" manuscripts owned by the MFS, and a number of "autographs" Nagy still had in his possession:
I had received a letter from Dr. E. Brooks Keffer, a Philadelphia dentist, on behalf of the Musical Fund Society of that city. He explained that shortly before his recent death, his father had been instrumental in acquiring for the Musical Fund Society eight [recte fourteen] manuscripts in the handwriting of Francis Hopkinson.... At the Society's annual Collation in May  the acquisition of the manuscripts would be announced, and Dr. Keffer asked if I would be the speaker to explain the significance of the documents.... On my arrival in Philadelphia in early April, I called on my friend, Mr. Edward Hopkinson, great-grandson of the composer. He had seen the newly discovered manuscripts and felt the handwriting seemed genuine. He offered to go with me to the offices of the Musical Fund Society where we could examine them and on the way we stopped to see [Henry] Woehlke [sic]. We had a more or less general conversation with him until I mentioned that we were on our way to look at some newly discovered Hopkinson manuscripts. "I've heard about them," he said, "and my only advice to you is to look carefully at the paper they are written on".... [begin strikethrough]He added that Nagy, the dealer who had sold the manuscripts to the Musical Fund Society, had been in his place a few months earlier trying to buy 18th century music paper from him; blank sheets torn from bound books.[end strikethrough] (14) We found the manuscripts exhibited at the Musical Fund Society.... Remembering Woehlke's [sic] caution I looked carefully at the paper on which the manuscripts were written. Each had a watermark that corresponded with those of other contemporary manuscripts I knew. It occurred to me that all the manuscripts of Hopkinson compositions I had seen were in bound books that contained his transcripts of works by European composers and a few of his original compositions. The latter always bore the initialled inscription, "F.H." The eight Musical Fund manuscripts were each on a separate sheet. If genuine, these manuscripts would pose a gold mine for the historian. While several pieces were copies of those already known to be by Hopkinson, among them his first known song, others were startling discoveries. One was a march popular during the Revolution and of hitherto unknown authorship: "Washington's March at the Battle of Trenton." If this manuscript proved that Hopkinson was its composer a baffling mystery was solved. Another piece was a musical setting to The Battle of [the] Kegs, a poem by Hopkinson that had been printed in contemporary newspapers.... Another discrepency appeared. One of the pieces was dedicated to Benjamin Carr, (15) an immigrant musician from England who had been one of the founders of the Musical Fund Society. Carr came to America two years after Hopkinson died. Mr. Hopkinson and I agreed that we would call on Woehlke [sic] again and ask him why we should be suspicious of the paper. We remarked to Wohlke [sic] that it seemed genuine, the watermarks appeared to be OK. "Sure they are," said Woehlke [sic], "but that doesn't mean they were written on a hundred and fifty years ago. There's a lot of blank pages in old music books, and all you have to do to write on them with ink is to re-size them with corn starch. We've been selling quite [a lot] of these during the past few months." That evening I had dinner at Dr. Keffer's home in Overbrook. He had arranged that the dealer, Charles Nagy, who had sold the manuscripts to the Musical Fund Society would call and discuss them with us. Nagy was a Hungarian refugee who in spite of his difficulty in learning the English language had become interested in early American composers and was engaged in buying and selling historic sheet music. Dr. Keffer's father had been an ardent collector of such items and he had bought many of them from Nagy. Shortly before the elder Dr. Keffer's death Nagy had been approached by a man who said that he knew of the existence of a number of Francis Hopkinson manuscripts. A number of them were produced and both Nagy and Dr. Keffer were excited. They saw no reason to doubt their authenticity and Dr. Keffer brought them to the attention of the Musical Fund Society and urged that the Society purchase a group of them. Despite the opposition of several members who felt that the Society's funds could not be used for such a purpose, the elder Dr. Keffer persuaded a majority of the board to make the purchase.... When Nagy called at young Dr. Keffer's house that evening he had with him other Hopkinson manuscripts, which, if authentic, would form one of the most important collections in American music history. There was not only Washington's March at the Battle of Trenton, but also another Washington's March, that had been highly popular in its day and had so far remained anonymous. More interesting than these occasional pieces were two lengthy works. One was the music for The Temple for Minerva. It had been stated on numerous occasions that if the music for this "grand oratorial entertainment" were ever found, it might prove to be the first American opera.... There was nothing about the Temple of Minerva music to excite any particular comment. It was undistinguished, but so was most of Hopkinson's music, even though some of it had an ingenuous charm. The other major work was a Commencement Ode. The words, but not the music, of this work were contained in Hopkinson's published Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings, and they too were reprinted in Sonneck's book. (16) ... The music for the Commencement Ode as contained in the newly discovered manuscript had a melody that could not conceivably have been written in the 18th century, unless Hopkinson had been a daring original and used chromatic intervals that were unknown to those who wrote in the style of Handel and Arne. In fact, the melody of the Ode was almost identical with Rubinstein's Melody in F, composed almost a century later. (17) After examining these alleged treasures, I talked at length with Nagy. He was rather vague about the source of the manuscripts. He had purchased them, he said, from someone connected with descendants of one of Hopkinson's associates. He did not know which one. This confusion was far different from the circumstances surrounding the Hopkinson Toast that Woehlke [sic] had acquired from direct descendants of Michael Hillegas, known to be a contemporary of Hopkinson. (18) When I pointed out that the dedication of one of the pieces in the Musical Fund Society collection to Benjamin Carr was puzzling, Carr having come to America several years after Hopkinson's death, Nagy said that this proved Carr came to America several years earlier than had been commonly supposed. He ignored the fact that the date of Carr's arrival was fully documented. For the similarity of music of the Ode to Rubinstein's Melody in F Nagy had an ingenious explanation. It is well known, he said, that Francis Hopkinson spent some time in London. He most certainly visited the British Museum while he was there, and probably presented that institution with a copy of his Ode. Years later, when Rubinstein went to London, he, too, visited the British Museum, saw Hopkinson's piece there and copied it. Remembering this conversation, I was not surprised when I learned several years later that Nagy finally landed in a mental institution. His attitude at this time was that he had bought the manuscripts in good faith and that he had found no reason to doubt their authenticity. If, however, he had been victimized he was as anxious to know it as the Musical Fund Society would be. After Nagy had left I told Dr. Keffer that I was more than skeptical about the manuscripts. I felt certain that someone very clever had read Sonneck's writings on Hopkinson thoroughly, and had proceeded to manufacture the choice items that had never been found among Hopkinson's papers. Moreover, I could not talk about the acquisition of newly discovered Hopkinson manuscripts at the Musical Fund Society in May. If the directors still wanted me to speak, then I would have to confine myself to talking about the glorious history of the Society itself. Dr. Keffer agreed to this. After I had visited Pittsburgh and Indianapolis I came home by way of Washington where I talked to Carl Engel, chief of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, and his assistant W. Oliver Strunk. Nagy had been there a few days earlier with his manuscripts. Both Engel and Strunk were as doubtful of the documents' authenticity as I was, but Strunk felt that Nagy was probably an innocent victim and most gullible. [begin strikethrough]He showed them a letter Nagy had received from a mysterious source of the papers, advising him not to trust the opinions of ink and paper experts.[end strikethrough] A few days later I received from Woehlke [sic] clippings from two Philadelphia newspapers, telling of the arrest of a man known as "the Baron," who had been charged with passing worthless checks and forging Hopkinson manuscripts. When I went to Philadelphia on May 2 for the Musical Fund Collation I heard more about the "Baron" whose real name was Weisberg. It was he who sold the manuscripts to Nagy, and when Mr. Hopkinson and I, together with Strunk from Washington, called at Nagy's house, Nagy showed us some further correspondence. Weisberg claimed to be merely an agent for a man named Malloy, who had written him a letter telling him not to submit the manuscripts to experts. (19) Before the dinner I had a few moments to tell Dr. Keffer what we had learned from Nagy. He said that Samuel Laciar, music critic of the Philadelphia Ledger, was planning to open the proceedings by announcing the acquisition of the manuscripts, and he doubted that he could talk him out of it. Laciar did make his announcement and in my speech, which followed. I would have done credit to any issue- straddling political candidate. After the dinner Strunk and I had the opportunity to talk with Laciar and Dr. Keffer at Dr. Keffer's house. Laciar was much disturbed by our doubts and finally agreed there must be further investigation. Why not submit the manuscripts to the Library of Congress for an opinion? This was accomplished a few weeks later. At the Treasury Department the process was brief and simple. An expert looked at the writing through a microscope and announced that it had been made with a steel pen. In Hopkinson's day only quill pens were used. It is said that the realization that the Hopkinson manuscripts were forged contributed to Nagy's mental breakdown. He died a number of years later, hopelessly insane.
Although the Hopkinson manuscripts were declared unequivocal forgeries, the MFS did not take any legal action. (20) It labelled the manuscripts forgeries and gave them to the Free Library of Philadelphia. (21)
THE FOSTER HALL COLLECTION (FHC)
Six years after Howard's encounter with the Hopkinson manuscripts, Weisberg, out of jail and operating under the alias "Charles Levitt," wrote to John Wilson Townsend, owner of the Graceland Book Shop in Lexington, Kentucky:
I have five songs in manuscript by Stephen Foster, which I wish to sell. (22) They were left in the possession of George Cooper, a dipsomaniac friend of Foster's who was also a songwriter, when Foster died; subsequently