King of Manuscripts.

David Segal has a riveting account in the NY Times of Gérard Lhéritier, once called the “king of manuscripts” but now known as “the Bernie Madoff of France.” Excerpts from the beginning:

PARIS — A letter from Frida Kahlo, signed and twice kissed with red lipstick, fetched just over $8,800. A page of scribbled calculations by Isaac Newton sold for about $21,000. A 1953 handwritten speech by John F. Kennedy took in $10,000.

“Adjugé!” said a gray-haired auctioneer, over and over, as he gaveled away nearly every one of the 200 lots for sale at Drouot, an auction house, in Paris in mid-November. The sale generated $4.2 million, which might sound like a triumph.

Actually, the sale was a fiasco, or, more precisely, one part of an ongoing fiasco. All of the items came from a now-defunct company, Aristophil, which starting in 2002 built one of the largest collections of rare books, autographs and manuscripts in history — some 136,000 pieces in all. […]

Six years ago, the French authorities shut down Aristophil and arrested Mr. Lhéritier, charging him with fraud and accusing him of orchestrating what amounts to a highbrow Ponzi scheme. As he bought all those rare manuscripts and letters, he had them appraised, divided their putative value into shares and sold them as if they were stock in a corporation. Those shares were bought by 18,000 people, many of them elderly and of modest means, who collectively invested about $1 billion.

The Times story is probably behind the paywall if you don’t subscribe; if you can’t read it, here’s Joel Warner’s 2018 Esquire story on the same case, but it focuses too much on the Marquis de Sade for my taste. If I were to fall for a Ponzi scheme, it would probably be one like this: “Hey, pal, want to own part of a first edition of the Cantos?”

If that doesn’t interest you, have some Homophones, Weakly.


  1. Stu Clayton says

    Homophones, Weakly is badly infested by comment spam. Hardly a comment is about anything else but the ease of obtaining loans from certain companies claimed to be “legitimate”. It takes me back to the old days here 8+ years ago.

  2. Dear me, so it is. I don’t understand bloggers who completely ignore spam; just close off commenting if you don’t feel like moderating it.

  3. To read the NYT article, I very quickly chose the whole page (control A) and copied it (Control C) the moment it rendered, before the paywall notice came up. I then pasted it into a document and read it at my leisure.

    Very interesting story. M Lhéritier sounds like a very convincing conman businessman. What a pity he won the lottery only after he was in too deep for it to pull him out.

    Happy Mongolian (Tibetan) New Year!

  4. is a personal blog site running software written from scratch by the blogger, Andy Wingo. Not only are the posts high-quality, the non-spam commentariat is very high-quality. Unfortunately, Andy didn’t add any comment spam defenses, so there’s a bunch of it there. What’s a poor reader to do? I grit my teeth and endure.

  5. Stu Clayton says

    That’s a brilliant wheeze, Bathrobe ! Now that I think about it, I may have done something similar once many years ago, but didn’t generalize it. Paywalls now just make me flounce off to some other site.

  6. David Marjanović says

    You can also, as usual, simply stop the loading of the page before the paywall is loaded. It worked for me on the second attempt.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    How ? By pressing ESC ? I don’t “usually” try to stop a page from being completely loaded, so I have no idea how to do that.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Yes, or clicking on whatever it looks like in your browser, probably an X, usually next to the “previous page” and “next page” buttons.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    Is this a maneuver figured out by Paywall Breachers ? I’m surprised it’s so easy to outwit the site owners. They may have miscalculated here, thinking that they will let the punter get a brief glimpse of der siebte Himmel before coyly pulling their skirt down.

  10. When I really need to read the NYT vel sim., I use the command-line browser Lynx, which ignores JavaScript (so no paywall) and doesn’t save cookies (so no per-month limit), although sites aren’t very pretty (no CSS either . You navigate with just the keyboard, which takes some getting used to, but there’s a two-line menu at the bottom:

    Arrow keys: Up and Down to move. Right [or Enter] to follow a link; Left to go back.
    H)elp O)ptions P)rint G)o M)ain screen Q)uit /=search [delete]=history list

    If you’re asked about a cookie, press V for neVer to discard it.

    Lynx doesn’t display images, but it can download them to display in another application. Windows binaries are available, and Mac and Linux users can use their distro package managers, brew on Mac, or build from source code.

    But most of the time I just find some other source.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    Thanks, John. But I feel another flounce coming on. I can think of almost nothing in the internet that I could not bear to do without, if getting my hands on it required me to crawl in the mud of a command line.

  12. Homophones, Weakly (7th Feb.) Aural & Oral: listening is gold, but talking is oxygen.

  13. Lars Mathiesen says

    Paywalls only need to work on a certain percentage of the marks. How many developer hours do you want to spend to keep JC out?

    There are also higher-tech solutions to these things, like overriding CSS to hide the thing hiding the content. Or low tech ones like choosing source view and searching for the start of the article text. But the really sneaky sites don’t actually send more than the bait hed unless you are logged in, none of the methods above will help with that.

    My solution is to read about it at the Guardian, once I’ve clicked around a bit there my daily newsreading minutes are usually more than spent anyway.

  14. Stu Clayton says

    From bad to worse. Reading the Guardian to keep abreast of silicone implants ? No thanks.

  15. Lars Mathiesen says

    I must be clicking on the wrong headlines, I am happily ignorant about the latest advances in pectoral augmentation.

    I didn’t even put forward the Guardian as a suggestion for a grumble-compatible news source, mind. I am well aware that I like it because its biases match mine, but contextually more relevant it has no paywall (which also matches my biases, of course).

  16. A simple way to bypass a soft paywall is ‘Toggle Reader View’ in Firefox. Just press F9 before the paywall loads and the text of the article will be displayed.

  17. Reader View, for those who (like me) knew nothing about it.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    Psst. I know a guy who knows a guy who might be able to get you an amazing deal on a first edition of Lume A Spento that, um, fell off the back of a truck or something. Cash only.

  19. Stu Clayton says

    I would prefer the edition with the title A Lume Spento. [I may have fallen into a joke trap here]

  20. I too was wondering about that. But it might be an attempt to sucker me into buying a rare version with a misprinted title.

  21. The con could deliberately be tempting you to feel superior to him. “If he’s so dumb as not to know the correct title, then he must have the real thing in his hands. He couldn’t have made that up.” I think that is JWB’s little joke.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    Make what seems a clumsy mistake (as if you had not yet had your second cup of coffee) so the mark flatters himself that he can cheat you rather than vice versa. It’s a tactic recommended in the manual.

  23. Lars Mathiesen says

    I’m surprised to see that the NYT is still serving the full text before you log in. Lots of Danish newspapers only serve enough text to fill the visible area over the log in/subscribe pane, and backfill the document with the whole article once you do. Stopping loading or Reader Mode won’t defeat that. Maybe the incidence of browser-savvy people is larger here so they can’t afford to ignore the ones that get around the paywall, unlike the NYT.

  24. I’ve been using Dillo and its offshoot D+ for some time to get around dumb JavaScript-based firewalls; I just leave it running (its overhead is very low) and copy and paste a recalcitrant URL into it from time to time. Since it is a graphical browser and so respects CSS, but ignores JavaScript completely, it is quite usable for this purpose, although it is not a polished browser like the Big Three. Unfortunately there is no Mac version, and when I tried to build one from source, I couldn’t persuade my Mac that I needed a dependency on openssh 1.0, which is API-incompatible with openssh 1.1 (which should have been called 2.0).

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