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Bedlam in Belgium

‘Documents et particularités historiques …’ Shelfmark: Gall.6.i.39

Bibliophile Renier Hubert Ghislain Chalon was born in Mons, Belgium in 1802. A keen numismatist, his interests clearly extended beyond books and coins as he was also the instigator of the Fortsas Bibliohoax, one of the greatest pranks in the world of book-dealing. His hoax was a thing of beauty.

In 1840 Chalon, with the help of printer Emmanuel Hoyois, devised and circulated Catalogue d’une très-riche mais peu nombreuse collection de livres provenant de la bibliothèque de feu M’r le Comte de J.-N.-A. de Fortsas, a sale-catalogue of 52 fictitious volumes, all supposedly unique. Jean Népomucène Auguste Pichauld, Comte de Fortsas, was portrayed as a recently deceased, wealthy collector of unique works. On discovering the existence of another copy from his ‘unique’ collection elsewhere he would immediately purge it from his library. J-C Brunet’s 1834 bibliographic work ‘Nouvelles recherches bibliographiques’ proved too much for our fictional Comte as it sourced a third of his library titles elsewhere. Such a setback was hard to take and he failed to add further titles to his collection deciding instead to auction off the remaining volumes.

Printed in 1840 at Mons, the catalogue describes the 52 works in convincing fashion. Its circulation prompted Europe’s bibliophiles to anticipate the importance of the planned sale in the small Belgian town of Binche. Scheduled for 10 August 1840 the auction at the offices of notary Maître Mourlon’s could not come quickly enough for the book enthusiasts.

Cleverly, Chalon provided a convincing backstory which lured European book collectors to Belgium for the auction. The catalogue describes each volume in great detail and in a style that would convince its readership of its authenticity. Each entry was deliberately added to induce a bidding war among the collectors, most of whose interests were known to Chalon. It worked so well in fact that bids were placed on every lot before the auction was due to take place.

‘Documents et particularités historiques …’ Shelfmark: Gall.6.i.39

Potential bidders, including Keeper of the Royal Library at Brussels, Frédéric Auguste Ferdinand Thomas de Reiffenberg, descended on the town in search of Mourlon’s premises at 9, Rue d’Église. Not only did they fail to find his office, they failed to find a Rue d’Église in Binche. It did not exist. It was then that a broadside [Avis] appeared informing the collectors that the auction was cancelled and the lots had since been donated to the local public library. Disappointed but still keen to view this remarkable collection the dealers sought out its whereabouts. As you may have guessed by now the town of Binche with 5,000 inhabitants did not include a public library among its attractions.

‘Documents et particularités historiques …’ Shelfmark: Gall.6.i.39

An acquaintance of Chalon, M. L. Polain in Liège had his doubts about the substance of the catalogue and correctly identified the prankster. Instead of alerting the public to the trickery, however, he played along with the game and even went as far as to write up fake auction results which ran in the newspaper La Politique on the evening of August 10th.

Chalon was later to fall out with his co-conspirator Emmanuel Hoyois and tried unsuccessfully to block publication of the latter’s account of the story Documents et particularités historiques sur le catalogue du comte de Fortsas, [1857]. The work which is available to consult in the Department of Early Printed Books & Special Collections also includes related correspondence and reprints of the catalogue and newspaper articles covering the events.

The chapbook True narrative of the early life and cruel abduction of M. Jean-Népomucène-August Pichauld attempts to add another twist to the story. Printed in an edition of 150 copies in the early 1980s, it suggests that the Comte was kidnapped and his library stolen by an English nobleman who then devised the whole hoax to convince collectors that the Fortas library or indeed the Comte never existed.

For more information see Walter Klinefelter’s The Fortsas Bibliohoax; with a reprint of the Fortsas Catalogue and bibliographical notes and comment by Weber DeVore. Revised and newly annotated by the author … Evanston, IL: Press of Ward Schori, 1986.

An electronic version of the catalogue complete with English translations can be viewed here