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The Collation

Following the Trail of Counterfeits in the Folger’s Reformation Collection

Among the many collections at the Folger, besides its magnificent Shakespeare Collection, is the Stickelberger Collection of Reformation Tracts. This valuable collection, purchased by the Folger in 1977, was compiled by the Swiss writer and collector Emmanuel Stickelberger (1884-1962). Combined with the previously acquired collection of Reformation pamphlets from the library of Sir Thomas Phillips (1792-1872), the Folger’s Reformation holdings make it a leading center of Reformation resources in North America.

Some of the Stickelberger pamphlets in situ at the Folger. (Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)

When the Stickelberger collection was purchased by the Folger, it contained over 800 editions published before 1531, including nearly 200 by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. Luther was a prolific writer and his works were published widely throughout his life in his adopted hometown of Wittenberg and beyond. In the 1520s, one in five books published in the Holy Roman Empire was by Luther.1 Although his books were published in all the leading Reformation print centers, many printers used false Wittenberg imprints on their reprints. Printers in some cities produced these counterfeits to circumvent local prohibitions on printing Luther’s works, but many others continued the practice even after their cities adopted evangelical ideas. Several of these counterfeits have ended up at the Folger. It should be noted that “counterfeit” doesn’t mean fake in this context—the texts printed were certainly written by Luther; it was the imprint that was false.

Much of my time at the Folger was spent undertaking watermark analysis. Watermarks were often used by paper manufacturers as an identifying mark and can be seen in early modern books by using a light sheet—basically a flat sheet of plastic that illuminates the page from behind. I was investigating the watermarks used in counterfeits to compare to the watermarks of printers known to have printed counterfeits. Such information provides a further layer of evidence for my research.

Partial watermark from Folger 218- 358q (Photo by Drew Thomas)

In addition to the watermark analysis, my research fellowship focused on the bibliographic history of these works. Not only did these counterfeits fool contemporary readers, they continued confusing collectors and cataloguers for centuries after. It was only with the dissemination of large-scale research projects, such as Josef Benzing’s Lutherbibliographie and the German union catalogue of sixteenth-century prints (VD16) that aided the widespread discovery of these false imprints. Today at the Folger, the history of these counterfeits is documented in acquisition records, card catalogues, auction catalogues, and on the bindings and pages of the books themselves.

Take a look at Folger 170- 310q, a copy of Luther’s Vom mißbrauch der Messen. The title page has a large Wittenberg imprint at the bottom, but the online catalogue record notes that according to Benzing’s Lutherbibliographie, it was printed in Augsburg by the printer Heinrich Steiner.

Title page of 170- 310q. (Photo by Drew Thomas)

This copy was a withdrawn copy from the National Library of Austria and purchased by the Folger in 1958. The accession card states Wittenberg as the place of publication. At a later date, someone added in pen “[Augsburg: Heinrich Steiner].” The card catalogue, still available for consultation in the Folger reading room, correctly identifies Augsburg as the place of publication, stating the information came from Benzing. However, it mentions that the title page border is attributed to the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder in Wittenberg. It is actually a copy of the Wittenberg border used by Steiner in his edition, making his title page nearly identical to the original.

Card for 170- 310q (Photo by Drew Thomas)

In another counterfeit, a German copy of a Latin letter Luther wrote to the Duke of Prussia, there is an entry from an auction or sales catalogue pasted on the back pastedown. As this was a copy from Emmanuel Stickelberger’s collection, it must have been inserted prior to its arrival at the Folger in the late 1970s. Like the book’s title page, it lists Wittenberg as the place of publication. However, the pasted entry even states it was a first edition from Wittenberg, an “Erste Ausgabe.” It was actually printed in Nuremberg by the printer Jobst Gutknecht. Both the Folger’s card catalogue and online catalogue state the correct place of publication.

Left: title page
Right: rear pastedown with catalog description
218 – 495q (photo by Drew Thomas)

The last example is a counterfeit pamphlet by Luther’s fellow reformer Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt. The title page has a false Wittenberg imprint, but the work is attributed to the Nuremberg printer Hieronymus Höltzel.

218- 055q title page (photo by Drew Thomas)

This particular copy was rebound by Stickelberger. His sister, who rebound his books, often added calligraphic notes on the spine. In the case of this copy, she wrote “Carlstadt. Wittenberg 1524.” However, by the time it arrived at the Folger in 1977, it had been identified as a false imprint. The accession card identifies Höltzel as the printer.

218- 055q spine (photo by Drew Thomas)

False Wittenberg imprints were used by dozens of printers during the Reformation. Although the imprints were printed nearly 500 years ago, by looking at evidence of provenance, as well as surviving archival material, you can uncover how readers, collectors, and librarians interacted with the books long after they left the press.


Fascinating! These comments about early modern “counterfeit” publications have wider implications. We cannot accept at face value printed dates and publishers in this era.

An important example for Shakespeareans is the 1601 (?) Loves Martyr, ostensibly edited by Robert Chester. Alexander Grosart noted in 1878 that the British Library’s copy, dated 1611, is an exact reprint of the Folger’s copy dated 1601–the same misprints, and the same faulty type in places. Further, Ilya Gililov raised credible doubts about the 1601 date of the first edition. The book was never entered into the Stationers’ Register. And, in terms of the importance of watermark analysis, Gililov found that the paper of both copies has the same distinctive watermark: a unicorn with crooked back legs. So the book, with Shakespeare’s notoriously enigmatic poem, “Let the bird of loudest lay,” may have been his eulogy on the death of Queen Elizabeth.

More details are here–

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. — May 7, 2020


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