Kenneth Rendell is easily one of the world’s foremost dealers in historical letters and documents as well as the go-to expert when it comes to judging whether or not a document is forged or authentic. He was the one called upon to assess the notorious Hitler Diaries (took him no time at all to see that they were obvious fakes) as well as a host of other famed hoaxes. His Madison Avenue gallery is filled with framed documents that range from letters by Katherine Hepburn refusing to go to a grand occasion (‘That sort of evening is an anathema to me – I can’t cope – I would die – I would love to come and wear my rags and shock you all – But it’s no use’) to a musical score by Mozart. There’s everything in between, letters from John Lennon and Thomas Jefferson, indecipherable scribbles from Yeats and photographs of the Marines hoisting the flag at Iwo Jima signed by the photographer Joe Rosenthal. It’s all completely fascinating.
Predictably for a man involved in such an interesting world, Mr. Rendell is thoughtful and direct, with no affect. He still gets a genuine thrill from the sudden intimacy of these precious documents, made all the more so because in our keyboard-and-ether-age, the handwriting is no longer on the wall, or any other place.
Look [showing him the pages] my notes on you are handwritten and that was something I was going to ask you about—the death of handwriting. How is that going to affect the way we record our lives?
Terribly! There are still people who believe that the personal touch of a handwritten letter matters but generally speaking all of this is just not going to continue into the future. People doing email, they don’t actually send letters … in a way with a lot of emails you see more of the real person because they actually type them themselves and they’re not being cleaned up by a secretary that it was dictated to, but in another sense you don’t know who really does an email. It could be someone writing on their behalf. Even letters there’s the problem of autopen signatures being applied.
My mother was a grade school teacher and she was always fascinated by the way the kids were all taught to write the same way but they all produced different handwriting.
There is also the sense of the mood somebody is in. You can see it in the handwriting … when people are uptight their handwriting gets smaller and when people are happy and expansive their handwriting is larger. And it’s individual.
Do you set much store by the people who say they can judge someone’s personality by their handwriting?
I never get into it. I don’t want to get into to it because I see so much handwriting that if I became fascinated with it I would never get anything done.
I am also curious about this whole idea of authenticity. Again, I’m wondering, as a culture, to what extent we value it any more. I’m thinking of people like James Frey or this woman who fabricated her own tragic 9/11 story, and have the feeling that people don’t really mind if it’s untrue so long as it’s entertaining.
Somebody I know who is a book dealer was telling this story one night and I just said ‘That’s a load of crap, Johnny’ and he said ‘Okay. Everybody who wants to hear a good story, stay. Ken can leave.’
Why do they need to pretend they’re true? Why not just say ‘Once upon a time …’?
I don’t know. I find it amazing how people adopt personalities … like people who talk about their military careers and never were in the military. It’s just totally made up, a fantasy world,
But with all these people that you’ve been confronted with, like the people behind the Hitler Diaries, what lies behindthese hoaxes?
In a lot of cases it’s money. With the Hitler Diaries it was money on the part of the forger. It was fame on the part of the reporter, money on the part of Stern magazine. And for the other people involved in it, it was market share, beating the rivals … frequently you get all this kind of stuff getting into it. There’s also the element of fooling people, getting away with something …there’s a great sense of pulling something off that fools the experts.
I read that Konrad Kujau (the forger), when he was coming out of court, happily signed his ‘Hitler’ signature for people waiting outside the courtroom.
I think he could hardly believe what this had turned into. And it was turned into it by Stern magazine. He did one Hitler volume and that was it. Stern magazine came to him and said ‘Hitler must have written more. He must have written one every year!’ And they weren’t satisfied when they got those. ‘Well didn’t he write anything else?’ They kept leading him. They would pose a question and then tell him the answer while he was struggling to dream up any credible answer, they would give him the answer. My favorite one was ‘Where did these things come from?’ Well they have to know where they’re coming from and he sits there with nothing to say. And they immediately say ‘We know. They must be coming from East Germany. That’s why you can’t tell us.’ And he said ‘Yes!’
As a business, this is not something you can go to college and learn—how did you get into it?
No, it was an accident. I had a friend in 1959 who had started to buy letters of presidents and I traded him a collection of coins for his presidential letters. Then I decided it would be much more fun to be a dealer and then I could collect more things rather than just buy what I could afford.
What were you working as at the time?
I was dealing in rare coins.
Were you a collector as a kid ?
I was a kid then, actually, to the degree I was ever a kid. I thought ‘Why deal with being a teenager? Skip it.’ I went from 12 to 21, which is not good for you. It’s not something I recommend. I think I put my first catalog out when I was 17 or 18.
How does it play out later on?
Well … with lots of psychotherapy you work through it. I have children and I want them to be children.
Rare coins seem to be very popular at the moment.
Rare coins are booming. I’ve just sold a lot of my coin collection and I’ve been astounded at the prices I’ve gotten because [with] rare coins, nothing goes off the market really and for a price everybody puts everything back on. There’s just a lot of trading and it’s easy to quantify rare coins.
Why are we, as human beings, collectors? What is theimpulse behind collecting?
Well, I don’t know the basic psychological thing … I think liking to acquire things, whatever that’s all about. It’s an interest outside of yourself, an interest in the world beyond yourself.
As a modern culture, do you think we have a waning interest in history?
Oddly, I don’t think so. But there’s more a focus on other people now. Obsessively now …
You mean celebrity culture?
I think it is very sad that so many people’s lives are so unfulfilling that they look to people and extrapolate from their personal life… they pretend to be [those other] people … and when there’s no known merit to that person’s personal life.
Well, what is the difference between Katherine Hepburn and Lindsay Lohan?
Er … Katherine Hepburn is dead. (We don’t sell anything of living people). I don’t think anybody ever obsessed over Katherine Hepburn on a personal level … of chronicling the way she lived. I mean Lindsay Lohan, the way she lives every day, and the parties and all this crap that goes on with these people and the terrible behavior … there were legal cases where actors, and I don’t think actresses, although maybe there were some, but one scandal and their careers were over. Now it doesn’t mean anything … what people are doing is dangerous … drunk driving. You can hit people and kill them!
But these letters and documents that you sell, the people who buy them are also reaching to touch the personal lives of the people who wrote them.
Exactly! But the enormous difference is that someone who is interested in Einstein, or Thomas Jefferson or Verdi is not paying any attention to their personal life. Einstein had a pretty awful personal life.
But quite a fascinating one.
He had lousy divorces and his relationship with his kids wasn’t all that good but that has nothing to do why people are interested in Einstein. They’re interested in him as a scientist and humanitarian, and all the help that he gave German refugees in World War II.
It’s to do with substance not style.
Yeah! Pavarotti was our biggest client for Verdi and Pavarotti sang these songs, and he’s buying the manuscripts from us. It was really exciting.
Is celebrity culture going to corrupt your business in some way?
Oh, in the end, very long term, it could. But it’s going to warp because of a lack of material.
How do you know who is going to sell well? Ultimately is it a feel?
Well it’s a feel for the significance of the person, a particular letter. Sometimes I’m really wrong.
When have you been wrong?
Well I never thought that Bobby Kennedy would sell … I mean he had a brief career and I didn’t think he had all that much impact. When people die there very frequently is a significant fall off in interest if they haven’t left something behind that continues like books.
Can you give an example of that?
I think like Jackie Kennedy. Interest in her has fallen off significantly. When she was alive she was a very interesting First Lady … but those memories begin to fade.
What do you think might emerge that will be precious from our times? Can you predict?
I think that we have such a lack of heroes these days. I don’t know who would emerge … you look at the political scene and it’s terrible. No one is for anybody.
You sound very disillusioned.
If you look at all of the politics, look at all the people who are running. Hillary is the frontrunner, she’s the got the big factor because she’s a woman, Obama has it because he’s black—well these aren’t really reasons to vote for people. But in different fields there are people who clearly have a lot in sustainable interest, like Watson, [the geneticist], from DNA [fame] … he comes in here … he’s somebody who is a heroic type of person.
So, the flames are licking at the walls here and you have a chance to pull one thing off the wall and run—which one is it going to be?
The Mozart [score].