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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Texas Fakes

by Clay Coppedge

There was a time when there wasn't much demand for Texana, the generic name given to collections of original books and documents from the early days of Texas. That was as true in Texas as it was anywhere else. The largest collection in the world in the early part of the 20th century was held by a New Jersey oilman named Thomas Streeter, who came to Texas in the 20s and 30s on business and amassed a mind-boggling collection of early Texas documents.

Streeter tried to sell his collection to the University of Texas in 1957 but UT wasn't interested. The entire collection eventually became the property of Yale University. Yes, Yale.

That apathy toward the early days and documents of Texas began changing in the 1960s. Flush with oil money and realizing that the old days were gone for good, there was a hastening to remembrance of those long lost times. Suddenly there was a glut of buyers with vast stores of cash and state pride who were willing, even eager, to pay dearly for revered documents like the state's Declaration of Independence and William Barrett Travis' "Victory of Death" letter from the Alamo.

A hundred copies of the Texas Declaration of Independence and Travis' letter were printed "in great haste and chiefly in the night" in 1836 as the battle for independence from Mexico quickly escalated into an all-out shooting war. The printers worked under a strict deadline: get them printed before the Mexican army showed up and killed everybody.

The copies were handed out to the populace and used as handbills to recruit support for the revolution. Damn near every one of them disappeared. By 1973, less than a dozen originals of the Declaration were known have survived. There were only two copies of Travis' letter. Then copies started showing up all over the place about the same time that demand increased. The number of Travis letters went from two to 12 in a short amount of time. Copies of the Declaration of Independence multiplied from five to 21.

A few people - very few, considering how weird that is - began wondering why these documents were suddenly showing up on the market. One of the curious was Tom Taylor, an Austin bookseller and printer. He got to checking into the matter by means of deep, nearly obsessive research and concluded that all the copies of the Declaration that weren't around prior to the 70s were fakes, including one owned by then Governor Bill Clements. Ditto the Travis letter.

Nearly every major library, museum and private collector in the state was stung at least once when the forged items hit the market. Taylor himself had sold two copies of the Declaration in good faith. When he determined beyond a doubt that both were fakes, he promptly returned the roughly $50,000 he was paid for them. Not everybody involved in the scam was so scrupulous.

In one way or another, all of the copies that were exposed as fakes in the 80s were traced back to one of three men.

First, there was John Jenkins, a superstar in the world of antiquarian collecting. He started out collecting coins as a boy in Beaumont but soon branched out into documents and rare books. By the 1970s he had enough Texana to fill a corrugated metal building on IH-35 south of Austin. Jenkins was also a poker player of some renown in Texas and in Las Vegas, where he was known as Austin Squatty.

William Simpson was a gallery owner in Houston who sold fine china, linens, paintings and furniture. He was friends with the poet Ezra Pound and was once run out of an East Texas church for allowing African-Americans into the congregation. In the 60s he began selling Texana documents and letters and became a major player in a major new market.

And then there was C. Dorman David, a wealthy renegade who once drove his car through the (open) doors of drug store to buy a pack of cigarettes. That same kind of reckless approach to life, coupled with family money, helped him accumulate the largest collection of Texana in the world except for Streeter's, but it also helped turn him into a heroin addict. And forger.

David began forging the Texas documents in the early 70s, possibly as early as the 60s. His fakes were good enough to fool the state's best dealers, librarians and collectors. Part of David's secret was making his own ink to match what he believed would have been used in 1836. The paper he got from the empty pages of old books. All he needed were some originals, many of which ended up stolen from various institutions.

A 1972 raid at David's Houston store uncovered hundreds of rare books and documents and he was charged and indicted for receiving stolen property. David said he bought the documents in question without knowing they were stolen. Prosecutors couldn't prove otherwise, and the charges were quietly dropped.

The police returned everything that hadn't been identified as stolen to David. When he got strung out on heroin and in a financial fix he sold most of what he had left to Simpson and Jenkins. Simpson bought eight or 10 boxes containing about 5,000 documents and traded with Jenkins for others. The fakes were eventually traced back to Jenkins, but he said the fakes all came to him through Simpson, who said he got them from David. And by the way, Jenkins' warehouse caught fire a couple of times under mysterious circumstances.

David went on the lam for seven years after being arrested for drugs but eventually turned himself in and served time at the state prison in Huntsville. He identified himself as the forger in question to the New York Times and Texas Monthly but he was never charged. Truth is, he said, he never tried to hide what he was doing. He said he did what he did for the art's sake, not the money.

Jenkins was found floating in the Colorado River near Bastrop in April of 1989 with a bullet wound in the back of his head. His Mercedes was parked close to the bank, its passenger door open. His wallet, empty of cash and credit cards, was found nearby. The gun used in the killing was never recovered. The sheriff ruled it a suicide.

No one has ever been charged with Jenkins murder. No one has ever been charged with forging the great documents of Texas history either. It's quite likely now, with the three principles dead and gone, that no one ever will be.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" June 6, 2015

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