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A Salinger-signed copy of 'The Catcher in the Rye' is up for auction -- but is it genuine? [Updated]

September 16, 2010 |  8:30 am

Catcherauction

When the e-mail came in about a charity auction of an autographed copy of J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," it was exciting news. Not only is "The Catcher in the Rye" one of America's most enduring novels; its author was one of our most compelling literary figures. Salinger, of course, was famously reclusive; when he died at 91 in January, it had been 45 years since he'd engaged in public life.

Which means he didn't go to a lot of book signings. Shortly after his death, one autograph expert pointed out that the rarity of Salinger's signature made it more valuable than President Obama's.

The autographed copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" is being auctioned by the website CharityBuzz for the organization Cure for Cancers; it's currently going for $2,500. Cure for Cancers is also auctioning a copy of "On the Road" signed by Jack Kerouac, which is now at $1,099.

"Salinger is rare," says George Houle of Houle Rare Books and Autographs in Los Angeles, who has been dealing in autographs for 50 years.

[For the record, 2:45 p.m. Sept. 16: An earlier version of this post referred to autograph dealer Gregory Houle. His name is George Houle.]

That rarity, which makes the auction so exciting, also makes it merit scrutiny. And a thing or two about the auction of "The Catcher in the Rye" seem a bit odd. First, it's listed as a first edition -- which it is, but of the Modern Library reprinting. The original run of "The Catcher in the Rye" was published in 1951 by Little, Brown and looks significantly different -- it has a vibrant red illustration on the cover. This sale is not for an original first edition of the novel, although since the Modern Library edition published the same year, it might be confused for one.

The other odd thing is that the description of the book condition is "excellent," although the dust jacket appears discolored or damaged. There is little of the typical detail about the book's condition -- wear, binding, tears -- including in the listing. Conditions are highly technical, and I'm not an expert, but similar Modern Library editions for sale from booksellers at AbeBooks have jackets that seem in better condition are listed with the lesser ratings "very good" and "fine."  But maybe the picture is simply a poor depiction of a book in excellent condition.

These things are hard to discern on the internet, which is exactly why it's advisable to try to learn as much as possible about an autographed book. Literary forgers have taken advantage of easy duplication and Internet deals on books; in February, Pennsylvania resident Forrest Smith was sentenced to 33 months in prison and ordered to return $120,000 to bilked customers for his literary forging scam. Smith purchased cheap first editions by popular authors on EBay, including Michael Crichton and Anne Rice, forged their signatures and then sold them as signed first editions. Authorities estimated he may have cheated customers of up to $300,000.

What makes all the difference is provenance. According to CharityBuzz, both books have been "certified authentic by Steven Rocky, founder of PSA and Global Authentication." The organization Cure for Cancers, through CharityBuzz, wrote in an email that it received both books as a donation from a memorabilia collector, who "received the signed J.D. Salinger 'Catcher in the Rye'  from a friend who aquired it directly from one of Salinger's publishers (First Modern Library) in the early 1960's."

That may or may not satisfy collectors. And for those of us who are intrigued by Salinger, it doesn't give much to the imagination -- when and where did he sign the book? Was it for a friend, or for a stranger? Was there a lucky fan hovering nearby as he signed this great work?

Houle said he couldn't judge a book without seeing it himself, but noted that Salinger's signature is easy to forge, and that he rarely signed books without making an accompanying inscription. "If someone came in the door with that," he said of the auction copy, "I wouldn't buy it at any price. There's so much bad stuff around."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: The signed copy of "Catcher in the Rye" up for auction. Credit: Cure for Cancers

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