You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirteen

The Comte de Fortsas hoax, 1840

I count myself a bibliophile and love being surrounded by books – they do furnish a room, after all. Serious collectors of books specialise – first editions, Victorian novels etc – but the Comte de Fortsas, Jean Nepomucene Auguste Pichauld, took specialising to an extreme. His collection, just 52 strong on his death on 1st September 1839, featured volumes that were absolutely unique, there being no other copies in the world. If he discovered there was a duplicate, he would get rid of his copy.

To the excitement of all serious bibliophiles in Europe, a catalogue plopped through their letter boxes announcing the sale of the Comte’s collection on 10th August 1840. All interested parties were to assemble at the offices of the notary Maitre Mourlon at 9 rue de l’Eglise in the Belgian town of Binche. The catalogue amply illustrated the Compte’s unique style of collecting. In describing a work attributed to Pere Felix Grebard, the catalogue notes “this Pere Grebard is likewise the author of a very rare tragedy, La Morte de Henry le grand, which I have had in my collection, but of which I rid myself, having learned that Mons. J Ketele of Audenarde had another copy of it.

Interest was at fever pitch and prices were anticipated to be astronomic as collectors and even the Belgian national government as well as a representative from the Roxburghe club readied themselves to battle for the honour of picking up some or all of the Comte’s fabulous collection.

There was just one problem.

When the collectors arrived at Binche the day before the great sale, they could not find rue de l’Eglise – it did not seem to exist. They were then hit with further disappointment when they picked up the local newspaper to find a report announcing that the whole collection had been bought by the municipality of Binche for its public library.

Some collectors, in a state of disgruntlement, decided to go home while others decided to satisfy their curiosity by viewing the collection at the library. But the library proved to be just as elusive as the rue de l’Eglise. There wasn’t one.

And then the centime dropped. They had been had.

The perpetrator of this elaborate hoax was a local antiquarian, Renier Hubert Ghislain Chalon. In planning the ruse Chalon researched the particular specialities of his intended victims, ensuring that within the catalogue there was something that would appeal to each of them. And then there was the sheer enormity of preparing the catalogue and dispatching it out in good time for each of the collectors to make plans to arrive in Binche in good time for the sale. According to one report, Chalon actually chatted to a group of collectors and confirmed that he had known the Comte well. Apart from exposing the gullibility of the bibliophiles, there is no evidence that Chalon had any other motive.

But all was not lost for the bibliophiles.

The catalogue itself became something of a collectors’ item and quadrupled in price over the next few years. Such was the demand for the catalogue that the original printer, M Hoyois, decided to run off a few more copies together with a facsimile of a letter purporting to have been written by the Comte and some prospective orders from the hoodwinked collectors.

Chalon went to court to prevent the reprint. After all, it would have been contrary to the spirit of the Comte.

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