Published: Sunday, Oct. 15 1995 12:00 a.m. MDT

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Most experts believe some of Hofmann's forgeries of historical documents and artifacts continue to circulate, either undetected or through willful ignorance by dealers and galleries who just don't want to know.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.

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