Bookshelf: A Book About Books About Books


—Autograph May 2009

Fleck’s Books About Books: A History and Bibliography of Oak Knoll Press

Few publishers have appeared in this column more often than Oak Knoll Press of New Castle, Delaware. Autograph collectors with a bookish bent should bow before their logo and chant, Wayne’s World-style, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!”

Founder Robert Fleck founded Oak Knoll Books—dealers in books about books—in 1976, and Oak Knoll Press—publishers of books about books—began two years later. In 2008 Oak Knoll Press published Books About Books: A History and Bibliography of Oak Knoll Press, authored by Robert Fleck. (The existence of a “Books About Books” section in my own shop amazes and amuses the uninitiated. Books about books is actually the largest single category of books in existence—or so I’m told.)

Fleck’s 50-page introduction tells the entertaining story of the young chemical engineer who chucked it all to specialize in the fascinating yet arcane field of antiquarian bookselling. He chronicles the challenge of finding adequate retail and publishing space; their early catalogs and decision to focus on direct selling techniques; their shift into publishing and development of prestigious co-publishing arrangements with the likes of the American Antiquarian Society, British Library and similar distinguished organizations; his challenges as president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers; and the changes and challenges caused by the growth of the Internet. It’s a fascinating story of hard-won success, ably told.

But the meat ‘n’ taters of Books About Books is the chronological annotated bibliography of all Oak Knoll Press books. Each title is briefly discussed, and Fleck also notes each edition or additional printings. Titles involving autographs and documents, forgery studies and other issues relevant to the autograph world are sprinkled throughout, making this rich terrain. If you already have a good reference library of autograph literature, this helps you fill in gaps. If you’re just starting such a library or, like many long-time collectors, have only the scant few reference works common to the autograph industry, Books About Books is a superb way to learn what else exists. Sure, some of the titles are long since out of print, but the Internet has made the tracking down of specialized titles easier and more affordable than ever. Given the lack of a truly definitive bibliography of autograph literature, Books About Books at least profiles one leading publisher’s output.

Biographies & Memoirs

Biographies and memoirs of noted antiquarian booksellers and collectors are chock full of tales (some of them even true!) about autograph material and signed volumes that have passed through their hands—along with much book and autograph legends and tall tales.

English bookseller Percy Muir’s 1956 Minding My Own Business, which Oak Knoll reprinted in 1991, provides charming tales of bookselling at the genteel firm Elkin Mathews between World Wars I and II, well populated by “enthusiasts, experts and eccentrics.”

Frank Herrmann’s Low Profile: A Life in the World of Books (2002) is similar, but mostly concerns the publishing and high-end auction scene in England of the last few decades.

I had my criticisms about Anton Gerits’ Books, Friends and Bibliophilia (2004) when I reviewed it, but few other memoirs do a better job of covering the European antiquarian bookselling scene from the 1950s until now.

And every collector worth his salt knows the adventures of those grand bookselling ladies Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern, both recently deceased. Oak Knoll published several of their joint memoirs. Typical is Old Books in the New World (1996), which “records for the first time in detail their book buying trips abroad between 1947 and 1957.”

Among private collectors, there’s the “obsessive collector of rare books and artifacts,” 19th century New Zealand guv’na George Grey, whose autographic gems may be appreciated in Donald Jackson Kerr’s Amassing Treasures for All Time: Sir George Grey, Colonial Bookman and Collector (2006).

Robert Fleck’s own A. Edward Newton: A Collection of His Works (1988) elaborates the great Edwardian fop’s choice literary holdings.

Studies of Historical Scripts

Studies of various historical scripts pepper Oak Knoll’s backlist.

The intricacies of ancient and medieval scripts may be better understood through Stan Knight’s Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2003), Vera Radosavljevic’s Materials & Techniques of Medieval Manuscripts (2008) and Kathleen P. Whitley’s The Gilded Page: The History & Techniques of Manuscript Gilding (2008).

If the broader spectrum of handwriting styles throughout history piques your curiosity, Rachelle Altman’s Absent Voices: The Story of Writing Systems in the West (2004) might be sought out.

If relatively modern attempts at mastery of letter forms catch your fancy, consider William E. Henning’s An Elegant Hand: The Golden Age of American Penmanship & Calligraphy (2002) or Peter Holliday’s Edward Johnston: Master Calligrapher (2007).

If tracking the ownership history of books based on ownership signatures, margin notes and other documentary evidence is your thing, how about two titles edited by Robin Myers, Michael Harris and Giles Mandelbrote—Owners, Annotators and the Signs of Reading (2006) and Books on the Move: Tracking Copies through Collections and the Book Trade (2007).


Everyone seems fascinated by the topic of forgeries, autograph collector or not, and the savviest collectors can’t get enough of it. Oak Knoll published several important studies on the topic.

Pat Bozeman’s Forged Documents: Proceedings of the 1989 Houston Conference (1990).

Robin Myers’ Fakes and Frauds: Varieties of Deception in Print & Manuscript (1996).

Narratives about particular famous forgers also find their place here. Joseph Rosenblum’s Prince of Forgers (1998) details French forger Vrain-Denis Lucas and his staggering output, and his The Practice to Deceive (2000) profiles nine high-profile forgers.

Autograph collectors determined to educate themselves on matters either general and popular or arcane and esoteric are highly recommended to flip through Robert Fleck’s Books About Books: A History and Bibliography of Oak Knoll Press, 1978-2008. It’s a gold mine of autograph information.

Masters of Golf: Ralph Guldahl


—Autograph March 2009

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Elizabeth Taylor – 66 Love Letters


Autograph February 2009
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Paper, Pen & Ink

By Steven Raab

Autograph May 2009

Authentication of historical autographs doesn’t always begin with an analysis of the signature. Often, you can spot a suspicious item simply by knowing what paper sizes were in vogue during the period in which the author was writing, or through understanding what pen would have been in their hand. In our book, In the Presence of History, we detail 10 steps for authenticating historical autographs. The fourth step, in which we explain what you should be looking for in terms of types of paper, water marks, pens and inks, is excerpted below for Autograph readers.

Extracted from In the Presence of History

Paper Sizes & Manufacture

A Letter from Washington approving his plan for an attack on the British, written on the common size paper of the Revolutionary era

The manufacture, physical makeup and sizes of paper have differed over the years. Letters of Washington, Franklin and others of their generation were almost never written on paper smaller than about 8×10 inches. Often the paper was larger, more like 9×12 or 14. And sometimes that was its size when folded so that there were four sides total, meaning the sheet unfolded was actually more like 18×12 inches.

Starting about the time of Jefferson’s administration, the really large paper lost popularity and stationery was mainly sheets about 8×10 inches. Small notepaper size stationery made its appearance about 1840 and was the paper of choice from 1860 until about 1900 when stationery assumed its present size.

Parchment was reserved for documents and religious manuscripts. Paper made from the 17th-18th century up to about 1800-1810 was “laid” paper, and held up to the light will show parallel lines throughout, like a grid or like ribbing, where it had been laid on a rack to dry. The nature of the rack marks varied by time and place, so it is often possible to closely date and locate the paper. Woven paper began replacing laid paper at the end of the 1700s, and by 1810 was the paper of choice.

Imprints & Watermarks

Much paper manufactured between about 1840 and 1890 had little embossed imprints of the manufacturer, or occasionally stationer, usually at the upper left corner. Watermarks unique to each manufacturer were widely used in paper made from the Middle Ages right up to the advent of the cheap, wood pulp-based product, which began in the 1840s and by the 1870s was commonplace. They persisted in high quality papers and still persist to the present day.

A fair number of watermarks actually contain the date of manufacture; others have different but equally valuable information. As an example, some Revolutionary War letters of George Washington have a picture of Britannia as a watermark, establishing the era of their manufacture and providing a wonderful irony. There are books on watermarks, so they can also be used in many cases to date the paper. Not long ago, we dated a manuscript bearing the Washington family coat of arms to the mid-17th century by finding the watermark listed in a reference work.


A letter from Chester A. Arthur using the small note paper of his time

Envelopes didn’t come into general use until the late 1840s. Prior to that, letters were folded up to a size approximating today’s small envelopes and were addressed on the back. The address panel consisted of a space about 4×5 inches. The folds were then sealed with wax, sometimes using a seal with the writer’s coat of arms or initials. A good rule of thumb would be to expect letters prior to 1840 to have folds consistent with this. Since envelopes came into usage, they have been smaller than the letters they contained, so post-1840 letters will also have been folded, but to fit their envelopes. Make sure there is a good explanation for an unfolded letter (for example, since the 1930s, a cover letter enclosing a signed photograph might have been sent in a large mailer and not needed folding).

Starting with a Feather

Introduced around 700 AD, the quill pen was the dominant writing instrument for over a thousand years. It was made from a bird feather, with the strongest quills being those taken from large birds in the spring from the five outer left wing feathers. The left wing was favored because the feathers curved outward and away when used by a right-handed writer. Goose feathers were most common; swan feathers were of a premium grade being scarcer and more expensive. For making fine lines, crow feathers were the best, and then came the feathers of the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey. These quills had a very positive property—a natural ink reserve found in their hollow channel. The negatives were that they lasted for only a week before they became worn and it was necessary to replace them, and they had a scratchy and uneven flow.

Example of “nibs” from the metal-tipped dip pens

By the 1840s, quills gave way to the metal tipped nib pen, which lasted much longer and allowed for the tips to be replaced. It did not have an ink reservoir, however, so it required constant dipping.

The fountain pen, with its internal reservoir for ink, came into common use with the invention of the Waterman pen in 1884. These pens were a mainstay for over half a century. Ballpoints were introduced to the market with a great deal of fanfare in 1945 but they were imperfect and very expensive. By 1952, the quality had improved and the price dropped, and over the next half decade they came to dominate the pen market.

The felt tip pen was invented in 1962 but did not come into common use for some years after that. Fine-line and permanent markers were first seen in the 1970s, and superfine-points gained popularity in the 1990s.

Each of these pens lays down a very distinctive, instantly recognizable flow of ink. Beware of any autograph whose ink does not fit into this timeline (like a ballpoint signature of FDR).

Ink Color

Letter from Martin Luther King signed with a ball point pen

Ink color matters also. Before about 1850 inks were generally brownish, and as they were made with iron, show-through was common. Over the years some types have literally rusted (which causes them to eat into the paper to a greater or lesser extent). Blue ink was not used much before about 1850. Some forgers buy old books, remove the blank pages, and write their forgeries on them using brown ink. Thus, the paper is real and the ink looks about right. However, paper loses its “size” over the years, and the strands of cloth in older paper separate a bit, so modern ink applied to old paper will be absorbed slightly and will blur. So watch out for blurriness.

Graphite Autographs

Pencils were present in America by the early 18th century but were not common until the first American wood pencils were manufactured in 1812. Between the early 1820s and 1850s, Boston became a hub of pencil-making, with several small makers opening in the area. One of these was John Thoreau, whose son Henry David was not only a noted author, but inventor of a method of mixing clay with graphite that made a superior lead. This led to the realization that by varying the amount of clay, pencils of differing hardness/softness could be made. The popularity of pencils grew significantly with the Civil War. What does all this mean in practice? I do not recall seeing autographs in pencil from prior to the 1850s and would be very cautious if offered one.

Authenticating autographs is like any other skill—you can learn a lot of the basics quickly, but for the more difficult or challenging projects, nothing works like experience. So, although you can’t become an expert in authenticating autographs just from reading this article, you’ll find that you do have the ability to determine for yourself whether many autographs are authentic based on the paper, pen and inks that were used.

Masters of Golf: Art Wall


Autograph May 2009

Art Wall Jr.

Novemer 25, 1923 – October 31, 2001

1960 Sports Illustrated cover featuring a painting of Art Wall Jr. by Burton Silverman

1959 was a banner year for golfer Art Wall Jr. He was chosen PGA Player of the year, PGA Tour Money Leader and secured the Vardon Trophy. But his most significant achievement that year was winning the Masters. In the final round Wall birdied five of the last six holes to take the Green Jacket away from defending champion Arnold Palmer and Cary “Doc” Middlecoff.

Wall is also credited with sinking 45 holes-in-one in his lifetime, a world record for many years. While 1959 was his only Masters win, he continued playing the PGA tour well into his 70s. In his final tour win in the 1975 Greater Milwaukee Open, he beat Gary McCord by a stroke. Nearly 52 years old at the time of that win, Wall still ranks as the second-oldest golfer to win on the PGA Tour.

In 1979 Wall paired with Tommy Bolt in a senior tournament that resulted in a dramatic playoff against Julius Boros and Roberto De Vicenzo. The television ratings were strong enough to convince then-PGA Tour Commissioner to back the creation of a Senior PGA Tour—what is now called the Champions Tour.

Pro-Set card signed by Wall

When he retired in 1980, Wall had secured 14 PGA tournaments, four of them in 1959. Throughout the 1980s Wall remained active in golf on the senior tour. He died of heart failure in 2001 at the age of 77. His legendary run of five birdies in the 1959 Masters is the stuff of legend.

Wall signed in a very bold and compact hand. His signature evidences many loops and effortless flow. With poor letter construction and legibility that is marginal at best, the eye appeal of Wall’s signature is limited. Due to the sloppy nature of Wall’s hand, his signature is rather easy to replicate and many well executed forgeries have entered the market since his death, especially on golf balls. Wall’s hand remained strong his entire life and a genuine signature will exhibit no shakiness of hand—one that does should be considered suspect and avoided.

He was generally a good signer throughout his life, but starting in the late 1990s his signing habits became erratic and many mail requests were ignored. The supply of Wall material is ample but not common, and generally limited to index cards and 8×10 photos. Letters are uncommon and golf balls border on the scarce side. Wall was not a prolific letter writer, but he would, on occasion, pen a nice letter regarding his Masters win. These letters have excellent golf content and are highly prized. Wall’s is a signature where demand has proven to be much greater than supply.

A Art Wall signature showing many loops and poor letter construction

Wall material remains affordable but values have increased in recent years and will continue to do so. A signature sells for $25, and an 8×10 photo is currently valued at $100 as are handwritten letters. Signed golf balls are a minimum of $100.