148. The Backstory

Part 4 of the 'Tunnel' series. (Starts here.)

IN ORDER TO MAKE a success of the forgery business, one has to view it as two things – firstly, a business, and secondly, a process of seduction, wherein the role of the forger is that of a matchmaker. The seduction one is trying to bring about is that of the collector. The forgery I wish to talk about is, in this case, a manuscript, but in the course of my career I have forged all manner of things: chairs, jewellery, paintings – anything of value that has the capacity to drive a collector to obsession. My role is the facilitator: I find the buyer, I match the buyer with the object, I introduce the buyer to the object. Obsession is fuelled by fantasy, and fantasy is created by backstory. In these kinds of cases, the object of desire is, at first glance, the book. But as we are dealing with forgery, and therefore deceit, it’s important to remember that the real object of desire is the collector, or the collector’s money. There are, broadly speaking, two aspects to the seduction: the artefact and the backstory. The artefact must, of course, be convincingly authentic. As facilitator, I do not make the object. Rather, I have a notebook in which are written, in code necessarily, many names, addresses and telephone numbers of craftsman across the world, but especially in Germany, whose speciality is the forgery of valuable objects of all kinds, upon whom I can call for assistance when it is necessary to fabricate an artefact. As is invariably the case, this story begins serendipitously. I remember that spring day in May 1951, living in New York, out of work, poor and at a loose end as always. I think at the time I may have been thinking of suicide. At any rate, I was making one of my regular tours of the used book stores on Fourth Street, between 8th and 14th Streets. In one of them – I can’t remember which, it may have been the Strand – I came across a book by Arthur Koestler called The Scum of the Earth. I’d never heard of Arthur Koestler, so it must have been the title that appealed to me. I stole it and read it maybe six times. It was in this book that I first learned of K.A. Stampflinger, who gave Koestler some of the morphine tablets he later swallowed in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Koestler called Stampflinger one of the most bizarre and witty persons I have known. But it was many years later that I learned of the missing manuscript. By now I had established myself as a forger, becoming something of an expert on the subject of the escape of Jewish artists and intellectuals from Europe during the war. It was in the New York Review in 1962 that I read an essay on Stampflinger by Hannah Arendt in which she mentioned his missing manuscript. It was precisely at that moment that the idea dawned on me. I realised, then, that I had a backstory, one that allowed me to bypass many of the usual difficulties associated with forgery, for what was missing was a manuscript, not a book. Forging a book is almost impossible, whereas there is nothing easier than forging a manuscript. However, as there are few manuscripts worth collecting, there are few collectors interested in manuscripts. This is why, when I determined to forge the Stampflinger manuscript, I realised it would take many years of hard and patient toil to profit from this opportunity. Not only did I have to invent the artefact and its backstory, but I also had to identify my collector. This, in a way, was the critical part: normally you identify the collector, then you fabricate the artefact to match them. The collector is more important than the artefact: they decide what the artefact will be. My knowledge of the missing manuscript was merely a potentiality until I had found its buyer. For years, I searched for such a collector. I imagined the kind of collector who could be persuaded to part with a considerable sum for my product would be Jewish, or at least a judeophile, one of those millionaires obsessed with pre-war European culture, perhaps a Holocaust survivor or a Nazi hunter. However, just as in life seductions rarely turn out the way they are intended, I found my collector by accident. Thankfully, when I did, I already had my backstory – all I had to do was to scramble to come up with a manuscript.