'He fooled everybody': Fake historic manuscript by 'greatest known' forger goes on sale

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Mark Hofmann, a Utah documents dealer, ended up murdering two people in Salt Lake City when he thought he might be discovered - BBC 
Mark Hofmann, a Utah documents dealer, ended up murdering two people in Salt Lake City when he thought he might be discovered - BBC

It is a manuscript that was dated to 1638 and valued at around $1.5million when it was offered to the Library of Congress in Washington in 1985 - only to be revealed as a remarkable forgery made that year.

Now it is being offered for sale, but for a fraction of its original value.

Known as “The Oath of a Freeman”, it was thought to be the only original document bearing a pledge of loyalty required of all new members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony - a pivotal artefact in the evolution of American democracy.

Mark Hofmann, a Utah documents dealer, fooled some of the world’s foremost experts into believing that it was the real thing.

None of them ever guessed that the unassuming scholar would be unmasked as a master forger, who is serving a life sentence, having pleaded guilty in 1987 to two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of theft by deception.

In 1985, fearing that he was about to be outed as a forger, Hofmann staged attacks known as the Salt Lake City bombings, in which he murdered Steven Christensen, a rare-documents collector, and Kathleen Sheets, the wife of Christensen's business associate.

The manuscript is being offered with an opening bid of $10,000 as part of Heritage Auction’s Rare Books sale in Texas on Wednesday and Thursday.

While there have been previous sales of paintings forged by Elmyr de Hory, one of the most notorious art forgers, a Heritage Auctions spokesman said that they have no idea how much it will fetch as there has been nothing comparable on the market.

Hofmann used to approach experts, seeking their advice on documents that he had “acquired”. In 1985, he contacted Justin Schiller, a leading antiquarian bookseller, asking whether a reference in a Sotheby's auction catalogue to “The Freeman's Oath” - “of which no copy of the original printing survives" - could be the document that he had just purchased from a New York bookshop for a few dollars.

It is unclear how much the Oath of a Freeman will fetch at auction
It is unclear how much the Oath of a Freeman will fetch at auction

Shortly afterwards, Hofmann gave Schiller part ownership in the document in exchange for Schiller selling it. Schiller approached the Library of Congress, having arranged for the document to be inspected by various experts.

Samantha Sisler, Heritage Auctions’s rare books specialist, told the Telegraph that there are two reasons for selling such an unusual artefact: “We’re establishing an irrefutable provenance that this is a forgery so that, in the future, no-one can pass it off as legitimate. On the other hand, Hofmann was incredibly skilled and innovative in his forgery techniques. So it’s a great opportunity for study.”

Asked how good a forger he was, she said: “Superb. He is the greatest known forger. Organisations were very hesitant to call it a forgery and also hesitated to authenticate it because of the lack of provenance. But it put up no red flags for every expert that examined it, including historians, document examiners, librarians, bibliophiles and scientists.”

In 1987, Charles Hamilton, a manuscript specialist, told the New York Times: ‘’[Hofmann] fooled me - he fooled everybody.”

Hamilton, who died in 1996, had recalled: “I had known Hofmann for years. He was mild-mannered, a serious scholar of high calibre dedicated to his work… When you know you're dealing with a devious mind, you can counterattack. That's where I failed so miserably. I had absolute confidence in him.”

Heritage Auctions said that the 4-inch-by-6-inch document is being sold in the very slipcover made by the Library of Congress when it considered purchasing the document, although there were concerns over its provenance.

It is now known that Hofmann printed the "Oath" in his basement in 1985, from a plate produced for him by an engraving company. In 1987, he confessed to prosecutors that his elaborate fabrication involved stealing 17th-century paper from a university library and creating ink from a 400-year-old recipe.

He went to prison owing more than $300,000 to Schiller, partly from the unpaid purchase of a Charles Dickens manuscript. A court order allows Schiller to sell The Oath to recover some of that lost money.

Schiller said of The Oath: "With all its notoriety, you could call it the most famous 20th century American forgery."

Now 66, Hofmann is thought to have operated as a forger of manuscripts and printed documents during the late 1970s and early 1980s, though the full extent of his activities is unknown.

Some of his forgeries relate to Mormon history and are thought to have been created to discredit The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the religion in which he was raised. He is the subject of the 2021 Netflix true-crime mini-series Murder Among the Mormons.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting