There was no reason to doubt the origin of a handwritten Emily Dickinson poem purchased for $24,150 by her hometown li-brary in Amherst.
Even the words "Aunt Emily," penned on the back, smacked of authenticity. They rang so true, in fact, that the library curator wondered which relative wrote them.That simple question set off a chain of inquiry that has now exposed both the poem and manuscript as shams by one of this century's most clever forgers - Utah's Mark Hofmann, according to the Jones Library and Sotheby's auction house.
Hofmann became well-known in Salt Lake City in the 1980s after he began selling forgeries of Mormon documents. Many were authenticated by handwriting experts, and even after Hofmann admitted to the forgery, many still be-lieved his documents were authentic. Eventually Hofmann was convicted of two pipe-bomb murders in Utah that he used to try and cover his tracks on the documents.
In 1987, he was sent to prison for life, but some still suspected Hofmann forgeries were in circulation. The Dickinson poem validates their belief.
"It's an extraordinarily good forgery," Selby Kiffer, a senior vice president at Sotheby's, said Thursday. "The correct paper for the period, the correct writing instrument for the period, the literary tone was quite good - and the imitation of the writing."
The Jones public library bought the two-stanza poem, which was writ-ten in faint pencil, through Sotheby's on June 3 with donations from members of the library and the Emily Dickinson International Society. It is a meditation on classic themes of the 19th century poet: death and the meaning of life.
The paper bore the embossed mark of a company that supplied paper to the poet. The handwriting matched the distinct style of the poet in that period of her life, the early 1870s. The work was signed, "Emily."
It had passed through the hands of more than one document dealer, been reviewed by Dickinson scholars, and survived the scrutiny of Sotheby's as a newly uncovered Dick-inson work. The library intended to add the poem to its collection of original Dickinson writ-ings and research material on the reclusive Amherst poet, who is regarded as one of this country's finest.
Jones curator Daniel Lombardo wondered, though, if he could find the niece or other relative who wrote "Aunt Emily" on the back. His first inkling of trouble arose when he could find no matching hand among the poet's relatives.
But the real breakthrough came when a Dickinson collector read about the auction and told library staff that he had been offered the poem by Hofmann in the mid-1980s when Hofmann was still viewed as a legitimate documents dealer.
Library investigators began to focus on Hofmann. They eventually found a book on Hofmann with a passing reference to a Dickinson poem he had once supposedly admitted forging. In the book, Hofmann was reported to say he later saw it published as a newly discovered Dickinson work.
A 1986 book on collecting historical documents supplied the last link of evidence: It carried a photograph and transcript of just such a new Dickinson work. Lombardo studied it under magnification: It was the library's, he says.
"He was one of the most skilled forgers in this century. The lengths he went to fool all the experts were extraordinary," Lombardo said.