A Fortsas Hoax of 1840

Jason Torchinsky is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Jason has a book out now, Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is a tinkerer and artist and writes for the Onion News Network. He lives with his partner Sally, five animals, too many old cars, and a shed full of crap.

I love a good hoax, and this one seems particularly well done: essentially, Renier Hubert Ghislain Chalon, a historian, researched the sorts of books that Europe's most noted book collectors would find irresistible. He then made up a Count, Jean Nepomucene Auguste Pichauld, Comte de Fortsas, who had a book collection of only one-of-a-kind books. If another was found of any book, the Count would burn it, insuring he held the only known copy. Each of the 52 books listed in the catalog was specifically designed to appeal to a particular collector.

The eager collectors were instructed to arrive in the Belgian town of Binche for the auction, where they were all roundly zinged. They all descended on the town, a long, difficult journey for many of them, only to find that the town had decided to buy the incredible collection for their library. Only none of the locals knew about the count, the books, or even their town having a library. All the noted collectors, many of whom bore heated rivalries with one another, had all been led on a wild goose chase, and were now crammed, fuming, in the local tavern. Eat it, mid 19th-century noted rare book collectors!

There's more details here as well, from a 1909 book of "literary curiosities."


  1. That’s pretty funny. Too bad this took place in the nineteenth century, since the collection might have otherwise included the now-lost Anglo-American Cyclopaedia of 1917. Been looking for that one for awhile.

  2. I grew up in a small town in Maryland within shot of Washington D.C. At one point myself and like 5 other people entered into a craze for the D.C. punk scene and there was one copy of a 1000 print run 45 from Dischord Records. It was “legless bull” by Government Issue. One of my friends became disgusted with the frenzy to own the actual record, even though we had already copied it to tape and shared it. Yup- he busted it and burned the sleeve, documenting the destruction with a mocking “only 999 left” screed.
    Now he’s an influential nanotechnology professor.

  3. Rarity and hoaxes are two things I never understood the appeal of. If only one person gets to have something, then for all intents and purposes it might as well not exist. Hoaxes are a thing where you tell a lie and pretend it’s a joke after the fact. Here we apparently have a story about a guy who was trolling book collectors for no apparent reason.

  4. How is that a hoax? That’s just being a jerk.

    A good hoax plays on the peccadilloes of the hoaxees. Ideally, it teaches the victim an actual lesson (beyond just “don’t trust people”).

    This was on a par with ordering a dozen pizzas to be delivery to your English teacher’s house.

  5. Anonymous, any idiot can order a bunch of pizzas delivered. The Fortsas Hoax was a minor work of art. Do you imagine it’s easy writing a catalogue of invented books that will pass muster with all the prominent bibliographers who are going to examine it? Not only would you have to make it believable that those titles exist; you’d also have to make it believable that only one copy exists of each. Moreover, if devising 52 books specificallly engineered to be irresistible to 52 specific book collectors doesn’t qualify as “playing on the peccadilloes of the hoaxees”, I don’t know what does.

  6. Teresa Nielsen Hayden

    … I’m a different anonymous, but I agree with the previous.

    That quite literally DOES NOT qualify as “playing on the peccadilloes of the hoaxees.” The word peccadillo has a precise definition which you might want to investigate.

    I do think that this was witty behavior, but it was still asinine, and moderately damaging for people who may well be working with good intent. Collectors do tend to preserve historical artifacts well.

    I agree with the implied sentiment that it can be useful to teach misguided members of our society a lesson, but there’s nothing that shows that these folks were misguided. This was asinine at best, and more likely hurtful in a world where travel was difficult, expensive, and potentially dangerous…

  7. I trust all of those who write favorably on hoaxes understand the concept of ‘criminal fraud’ and the penalties involved. Maybe consult a lawyer before attempting anything too jocular.

  8. #12: I don’t see how TNH’s usage of “peccadillo” is incorrect. One of its definitions is “a petty misdeed or personal fault.” The hoax took advantage of people who fancied themselves among the erudite but who were actually more interested in the collectibility of books than in their content.

    But yeah, you’re right, cross-continental travel involved real consequences and sacrifices back in the day, and it was arguably a bit on the mean side.

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