The Rumors of Mark Twain’s Autograph are Greatly Exaggerated

The Misadventures of an Old Book Collector

Don’t you just love coincidence?  I thought I did, until I smacked right up against it.  Then I found out how much it could smart.  But more about that later.

First I want to tell you about my books.  You see, some people have shoe fetishes.  Others have a weakness for Mrs. Field’s Cookies.  Me?  I’m a sucker for old books – wonderful old hardcover tomes with yellowing pages and cracked spines and bumped corners and titles that are practically obliterated with age.  Over the years I’ve amassed quite a collection, much to my husband’s chagrin, primarily because he’s the one who ends up having to hoist boxes full of them every time we move, but I don’t care.  I love them.  For the most part they’re pretty worthless - with the exception of a handful of true stated First Editions, mine are just plain old, old books.  But they feel good in my hands, they smell like time itself, and most of all, I like the way they look on a shelf, which is why I am powerless to resist them.

Such was the case a while back when I was browsing through an Antique Mall.  You know the kind, where they sell rusty cheese graters and Pez dispensers, and slop jars and lamps made from elks’ feet.  So anyway, as  I was wandering through the aisles I saw this old book lying all by itself on a little marble table.  Drawn like a moth to a flame, I picked it up and read, "Mark Twain’s Works” on the spine.  It was in mint condition, which was amazing, considering its copyright date of 1899.

While debating the $10 asking price, I leafed through the pages, and there on the third flyleaf, I saw it.  An inscription in bold, black handwriting read, "This is the authorized uniform edition of all my books”, and it was signed, "Mark Twain”!  I read it again, and my heart beat faster.  There it was in black and white.  I had stumbled across Mark Twain’s autograph!

Now I ask you, what would you have done if this had happened to you?  Go running through the mall yelling, "I found a book autographed by Mark Twain and it’s only $10!”?  Certainly not.  You’d do exactly what I did.  You'd close the book, take it up and pay the asking price and walk calmly to your car without saying a word.

That afternoon I took the book to a company that specialized in autographs, where a timid little man studied the handwriting from every angle, consulting reference book after reference book, comparing loops and crossed t’s.  Finally he looked up at me, smiled and said, "I think we have a winner.”  With trembling hand I wrote him a check for $35, whereupon he typed up a certificate authenticating the signature and appraising its value at $1,000!  You heard me right.  I said $1,000!

Naturally, news of my discovery spread fast (mostly due to my own big mouth), and one neighbor even suggested that the local paper might want to do a story about me.  But I decided not to pursue the publicity for just one reason.  My book was Volume XXII, obviously part of a series, and I desperately wanted to locate the other 21 books.  (When I found them, I fully intended to donate the complete set to the library, at which point I’d appear on television to receive my engraved plaque – a small but heartfelt token of the city’s appreciation.)   If the public knew the rest of those books were out there, everybody would be after them.  I couldn’t risk someone else finding them first.  So I decided to search quietly, patiently over time, even decades if necessary, secure in the knowledge that at least one genuine autographed volume was mine, a lasting legacy for my children and grandchildren.

And right here is where the coincidence comes in.  You see, I did indeed locate the other 21 volumes, the very next day.  It’s true.  I was telling my sister about my windfall and to my surprise she asked, "Is it a little red book about eight inches tall with dark red lettering?”  When I replied that it was, she matter-of-factly informed me that she had recently inherited a complete set just like that from her late father-in-law, and every one of hers were "autographed” too.  She described the inscription and it was identical to mine, right down to the very same loops and bold upward slants.  Can you believe it?  Yes, the handwriting was Twain’s all right, but it was printed right into the books!  Gone was my glory.  Gone was my engraved plaque.  Gone was my $35!

You have no idea how painful it was to undo all the fanfare I’d created.  But here’s an interesting thing.  The response I got was almost unanimous. "Sell your book at the appraised value!  You have the certificate of authenticity.  Who’s to know?”

Who indeed?  Who but my husband and children?  Who but my best friends and neighbors?  Who but practically everyone I knew?  Who but myself?  I was a paper kite blowing in the fickle winds of conscience until I caught myself making a list of ways to spend the thousand bucks.  I looked down at the paper and suddenly it leered back at me with an ugly face.  The winds stopped blowing.

That very day I called the appraiser and told him of the unfortunate turn of events.  He was surprised and I could tell he was also a teensy bit nervous.  Was I, after all, the kind of woman who would make trouble?  Would I publicize his faulty findings?  Would I sue?  Would he wake up one morning and find the severed head of Mark Twain on his pillow?  I told him not to worry, that I wasn’t going to do anything – I just thought he might want to know, in case someone ever came in with a similar "find.”  He offered to refund my money but I declined.  After all, it was an honest mistake.  Besides, I kind of wanted to hang onto that certificate.

I still have it, and despite all that’s happened, I’m really glad to know it’s there.  No, not the certificate.  My integrity.
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