Lies in Publishing: Collecting False Imprints

Bibliographers, cataloguers, and scholars rely upon the veracity of a book’s imprint—that is, the publication information provided by the printer on the title page, and includes the following: city of imprint: printing/publishing/bookselling firm, and date—to establish basic information about its origin, production, and date, but printers and publishers have issued books with falsified imprints for hundreds of years. Whether trying to duck a charge of heresy (no one wanted to run afoul of the Inquisition) or staying out of hot water with the ruling powers, fake imprints (and absent imprints) are extremely common in the hand-press period (roughly from Gutenberg until the Industrial Revolution). Although printers sometimes needed to conceal the origins of the book for their own protection, they also used false imprints to pose as other (better) printers (as in today’s fake Rolex and luxury handbag market). Text piracy was also a problem. Many European and English books were covered by copyrights, or a privilege to print, beginning in the fifteenth century. And we mustn’t forget the sexually explicit material that sold well for printers but offended moral sensibilities of the time and had the potential to harm their reputation. Printers had ample motivation to falsify their brand.

Taking a quick tour of false imprints in the upcoming spring 2021 Early Printed Books sale on April 8 will give us a chance to examine some the stories behind the lies.

The Threat to Printers: Papal Decretals Listing Banned Books

First, to emphasize one of the manifestations of the threat to printers, we’ll begin with lot 97, a group of decrees from the Holy See. These broadsides, printed between 1657 and 1727, list the latest additions to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books), a tradition begun by Pope Paul IV in 1559 to ward off heresy. As posters, these decretals were meant to be displayed in public as a warning to printers and authors (we know who you are), and to readers (don’t read, sinful content).

Related Reading: Early Printed Books: Old Tombstones

Aldus Manutius, or not?

Lot 20 contains three separately issued titles, including two incunabula and one book printed in 1516 that parades as the work of legendary Renaissance scholar and printer, Aldus Manutius. In this case, the true printer is a fellow called Peypus from Nuremberg, and he misspells Aldus’s last name (Rolix watch anyone?). Wondering how the culprit was found? Because printing types are unique fungible physical objects, bibliographers have been able to track printers through their type, ornaments, and initials through close scrutiny of printed books. Each letter and piece of punctuation come together to create the printer’s profile, like DNA or fingerprint. Even when a printer dies, moves, or leaves the trade, the passage of their type can be tracked through its use in other books. In this case, identifiable type has led researchers to the true printer, whilst ruling out the house of Aldus.

Same Title, Two (False) Imprints

Two copies of the same title with different imprints appear in the sale as lots 24 and 25, an unusual occurrence in itself, and apparently both are fake. One claims to have been printed in Paris by Bilaine, the other in Amsterdam by Daniel Elzevir. Elzevir was a famous, skilled, prolific printer, part of a family dynasty still in business today, so one assumes that use of his name might give the publication some credibility. Again, the forger has misspelled the last name. Willems, renowned bilbiographer of the Elzevirs disputes the attribution and points out that the true printer of both was Foppens of Brussels.

Machiavelli Printed in London

The two Machiavelli titles bound together in lot 79 pretend to be issued in Palermo but were really printed in London by John Wolfe. This one mystifies me a bit. Either Wolfe wanted more authentical window dressing to accompany his Italian-language edition of Machiavelli’s Discourses and The Prince, or maybe he was concerned that he didn’t really have the legal right to print these titles in the first place. In either case, he dressed up his London production with a woodcut device that looks very Italian. Wolfe also issued other titles claiming to be printed in Rome, Antwerp, Venice, Piacenza, and Monaco in 1580s, making him a serial offender.


Lot 49 is more straightforward. These four 18th century titles are described as erotica, and one might say risqué, but frankly, they’re just sexually explicit. Sometimes printers had fun with fictitious imprints, with double-entendres and bawdy puns, sometimes they just omitted them completely, as seen in a few titles here. A quiet shadow market in porn has been part of the book trade for centuries, with secret clubs and sections in bookstores making the material available to anyone who made the effort to find it. In some private libraries, the erotica section is housed in rows behind the visible books, on the highest shelves.

The final lot is lot 163 and is the work of Thomas Geminus after Vesalius, and it falls into another gray area. Andreas Vesalius’s work in anatomical illustration is among the best ever produced, and groundbreaking. His De Humani Corporis Fabrica was first published in 1543. Without doubt, Geminus did not have the right to reproduce Vesalius’s original images and publish them in London in 1545 but reproduce and publish he did. The London artist engraved his own suite of images after the Vesalian plates, and although he gives the master full credit (in all caps) in his prefatory letter, he certainly was not in a position to copy and sell someone else’s work for his own profit.

Assembling a collection false imprints has entranced more than one bibliomaniac. The Marteau collection of fictitious imprints at UCLA is named after a straw man concocted by Dutch printers to collectively shield themselves from retribution for their controversial work. Beginning in 1660, many publishers used the imprint of “Cologne: Chez Pierre Marteau” when printing material that ran the risk of being censured. Searching out these instances of bibliographic mendacity provides useful historical context, and gives us another reason to love books and collecting.

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