Provo attorney Brent Ashworth keeps the forgeries he bought from Mark Hofmann in a carefully labeled safe-deposit box.
It's not that they're particularly valuable. Ashworth retains them as a painful reminder of the oldest of commercial maxims: buyer beware.In the decade since Hofmann punctuated a lifetime of forgery and deceit with a trio of pipe bombs, leaving two dead and himself maimed, the depths of his deception remain largely unplumbed despite four books on his life and crimes.
Most experts believe some of Hofmann's forgeries of historical documents and artifacts continue to circulate, either undetected or through willful ignorance by dealers and galleries who just don't want to know.
But Ashworth, for one, never had that choice. Virtually everything he bought from Hofmann was fake, from the supposed precious last written words of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith to promissory notes bearing the "X" of famed mountain man Jim Bridger.
While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is widely seen as Hofmann's most notable victim, Ashworth was the single biggest loser - clipped for upwards of $400,000.
"There's no rewriting history in my mind," Ashworth said. "I was taken. I was stupid. I fell right into it. I was a pawn. But I was one of many."
Indeed, Hofmann told prosecutors he had "forged hundreds of items with at least 86 different signatures," including those of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and abolitionist John Brown. Among the more esoteric was that of Button Gwynette, a Revolutionary War patriot whose signature is worth a fortune. Just two are known to exist, and one is on the Declaration of Independence.
Following a 1988 suicide attempt at Utah State Prison, where he is serving up to life, investigators found in Hofmann's mattress a list of 129 signatures and documents he had failed to mention during extensive plea-bargained interviews with prosecutors in 1987.
The significance of the list isn't lost on those who tried to prove Hofmann a fraud, even when some of the world's most renowned handwriting experts and collectors were rallying to his defense.
"Without question, there are more - perhaps many more - Hofmann documents out there," said George Throckmorton, a forensic documents examiner and the man who solved the mystery of Hofmann's forgeries. He knows. He's seen some.
Throckmorton's certitude is echoed by Jennifer Larson, a Rochester, N.Y., book dealer who has done extensive research on Hofmann's creations and documented sales or attempted sales of probable forgeries.
Charles Hamilton, the eminent New York collector and handwriting expert, also agrees. His seminal book, "Great Fakes and Famous Forgers," was used by Hofmann to fool the experts - including its author.
"Yes, I think there are a number of them out there," Hamilton, now 81, said from his Manhattan gallery. "Mostly, they are documents and letters that weren't gathered at the time and whose owners don't want to admit owning or having them authenticated.
"Now and then I'll see one," he said.
Hofmann, 40, has refused repeated requests for interviews at the prison where the Utah Board of Pardons has told him he will spend the rest of his life.
Nearly 15 months after the bombings, Hofmann pleaded guilty to two counts of murder for the pipe bomb murders of Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets and multiple counts of theft by deception. Part of the agreement with prosecutors was that the bookish Hofmann give them an accounting of his crimes.
The interviews were disappointing. Hofmann was sketchy about the killings and his attorneys would not let him discuss forgeries for which he hadn't been charged.
Hofmann said he made his first bomb at 12 and his first forgery at 15 - a coin on which he electroplated a mint mark that greatly increased its value. It fooled U.S. Treasury experts, who authenticated it. It also gave Hofmann the confidence to forge again.
Over the next 15 years, Hofmann would forge hundreds of signatures, documents and papers. In the early years, his primary shill was the LDS Church. He was a member who secretly despised the religion.
Later, as his forgeries became more sophisticated, he attempted to alter the history of America itself.
Hamilton, famed handwriting expert Kenneth Rendell and others consider Hofmann among the top four or five forgers in U.S. history, if not for his technical skills, then for his audacity.
"His method of operating was as clever as his forgeries," said Rendell.
For example, Hofmann rarely took credit for his finds. Instead, he'd use friends and associates to sell the documents, or sometimes even plant a forgery for someone else to find.
Unlike Hamilton and Larson, Rendell doubts there are many Hofmann forgeries still floating about. His rationale is that he was unaware of a "single dispute where someone has come up with one."
Rendell apparently hasn't talked to Throckmorton.
Several times in recent years, Throckmorton has been called to examine documents that may have passed through Hofmann's hands. Some he believes are forgeries bearing the telltale microscopic cracks in ink that resulted from Hofmann's efforts to artificially age a document. The forger would place them in an oven, or let insects munch on them, or expose them to fungi.
Throckmorton is appalled that some owners of suspect documents don't want to know if they are forgeries and continue to circulate them as legitimate artifacts. One he declined to identify sold for as much as $20,000.
"Let me put it this way," he said. "If you bought a document, maybe paid $5,000 for it, would you pay me another $500 to find out if it's worthless?"
Suspected Hofmann forgeries, he said, have passed through auction houses from Las Vegas to Chicago and New York.
"After a while, it's gotten so I just haven't wanted to have anything to do with those people," Throckmorton said.
Larson has documented at least four sales of Hofmann forgeries since his guilty plea. In answer to Rendell, Larson points out "large portions of the trade in antiquarian documents operates in secrecy.
"That fact is indisputable - it is the very aspect of the trade that allowed a forger like Hofmann to succeed," she said.
And little in the secretive world of high-priced document dealers has changed since 1985. Unverified signatures of literary or cultural icons continue to trade for thousands of dollars "without a blush," Larson said, and "in an atmosphere of absolute uncertainty."
The experts all agree Hofmann's forgeries were spotty. Some, like the Oath of a Freeman - billed as the oldest printed document in America - were such technical marvels that controversy over their authenticity swirled for years even after Hofmann admitted forging them.
Others, like some of his early Mormon forgeries, were sloppy.
But what set him apart from other forgers, in Throckmorton's view, was Hofmann's versatility. Where most forgers might specialize in one or two signatures, Hofmann mastered many.
Prosecutors who once asked for a demonstration recall Hofmann being able to freehand a signature of George Washington that was indistinguishable from the real thing.
And Hofmann mixed his mediums, sometimes combining fake signatures with forged printed materials. He also forged antique currency and coins.
But technical skills aside, what strikes Hamilton, Larson and the rest was Hofmann's ability to look people in the eye and lie, and ultimately to commit murder to cover his tracks.
"He added the ultimate touch to the portrait of himself as a forger by committing murder," Hamilton said.
For Larson, "His ability to deceive people, his audacity, his lack of principles and his ability to push peoples' buttons, make him the greatest."
Hofmann's history: deception, murder, life behind bars
Here is a chronology of significant events related to forger-murderer Mark Hofmann:
- 1979 - In October, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints buys Anthon Manuscript from Hofmann for $20,000.
- 1981 - Church pays Hofmann $20,000 in trades for so-called "Joseph Smith III" blessing indicating a hereditary succession in church leadership. Church in turn trades it to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for documents valued at up to $50,000.
- 1982 - Hofmann sells numerous forgeries valued at $40,000 to Mormon history buff Brent Ashworth and the Mormon Church.
- 1983 - In January, the LDS Church pays Hofmann $15,000 for an 1825 letter purportedly written by Joseph Smith indicating the church founder relied on magic to dig for buried treasure.
- 1984 - Hofmann associate Lyn Jacobs offers to sell the so-called "White Salamander" letter to the church for between $60,000 and $100,000. Hofmann asks Jacobs to take full responsibility for the letter, saying he doesn't want the publicity. The church declines.
Steven Christensen purchases Salamander letter for $40,000 and donates it to the church after it is authenticated by handwriting expert Kenneth Rendell.
Meantime, Ashworth discovers Hofmann has sold a letter purporting to contain Smith's last written words to an Arizona dentist after the document had been promised to Ashworth. He confronts Hofmann.
During this time, Hofmann begins to talk of a McLellin Collection, an assortment of potentially embarrassing documents belonging to an early Mormon apostle who left the church. Hofmann also begins forging other American antiquities, including signatures by Betsy Ross and Jack London.
- 1985 - Hofmann continues to search for a buyer of the nonexistent McLellin Collection. In March, Hofmann begins forging the "Oath of a Freeman."
Christensen acknowledges the "White Salamander" letter is apparently authentic. Handwriting expert Charles Hamilton authenticates letter at Hofmann's behest.
Hofmann solicits money from several investors for the McLellin Collection without telling them about one another. In June, a church general authority arranges a no-collateral $185,000 signature loan for Hofmann after a single meeting with Hofmann and Steve Christensen. Hofmann said he needs the money to make sure the collection doesn't fall into "enemy hands."
In another lie, Hofmann says the Library of Congress has purchased the Oath of a Freeman for $1.5 million. By fall, Hofmann is deeply in debt to several investors, borrowing money from some to pay others. He solicits nearly $300,000 from one group for a legitimate Charles Dickens manuscript and a collection of rare books, without telling them that both are already heavily leveraged.
Later, the same group gives Hofmann more money to buy a just-discovered second copy of the Oath of a Freeman.
By early October, Hofmann has promised the same money to three investors - coin dealer Alvin Rust, First Interstate Bank and a group headed by Thomas Wilding.
Christensen now is suspicious of Hofmann and threatening to expose him as a fraud.
On Oct. 15, Christensen and Kathleen Sheets are killed by pipe bombs built and planted by Hofmann. The next day, a third bomb nearly kills Hofmann. Searches of his car and home point to him as the killer.
In December, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Dawn House locates the real McLellin Collection in Texas. It is nothing like the one Hofmann described.Comment on this story
- 1986 - In February, four months after the bombings, Hofmann is charged with the murders and 23 counts of theft by deception and fraud. Eleven months later, following a six-week preliminary hearing, a controversial plea bargain allows Hofmann to plead guilty to two counts each of second-degree murder and theft by deception. He is sentenced to five years to life in prison.
- 1988 - The Utah Board of Pardons tells Hofmann he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Source: The Associated Press.