Mystery Monday: A Ben Franklin Signature?

Welcome to the POP Blog’s first “Mystery Monday” post, a weekly series of provenance related mysteries that you are invited to help solve.  For more about the Provenance Online Project (POP) and this blog, please see the About page.

Possible Benjamin Franklin Signature

Possible Benjamin Franklin signature in the margin of Penn Libraries BT131 .B67 1762

Is the signature shown in this image actually that of Benjamin Franklin?  While paging through a well-worn volume during the routine cataloging of a group of 18th century theology texts, Penn cataloger, Liz Broadwell, made this unexpected find.

The signature appears on the inside margin of a 1762 Dutch book titled Gods alwetenheid van David : beschouwt, betoogt, en zig ten nutte gemaakt in den CXXXIXsten Psalm,
a volume dedicated to commentary on the 139th psalm (Penn Libraries call number BT131.B67).   The binding of the book has broken at the place where the signature appears, suggesting that the book has often been opened at that point, but a note found in the book in the hand of its last owner, James Tanis (from whom Penn acquired the book), makes no mention of what would seem to be a rather notable feature.  The front endpaper of the book also bears the initials “BF”.  Both the initials and the signature closely resemble known examples of Ben Franklin’s signature, and an initial expert opinion suggests that it is possible that it could be Ben Franklin’s hand.  However, there is not yet any official verification pending further close analysis of the handwriting and exploration of the possible reasons for the context of the signature in this particular book.

BF initials

“BF” on front endpaper of Penn Libraries BT131 .B67 1762

Indeed, the placement of this signature is a large part of the mystery.  Why would Ben Franklin have placed his signature and initials in this particular book?  For that matter, why would anyone bother to put a forged Franklin signature in the obscure inside margin of an obscure volume of Dutch psalm commentary?

Two other signatures in the book are very clearly the owner’s mark of a contemporary of Franklin’s, a Dutch reform minister bearing the rather marvelous name, Warmoldus Kuypers (1732-1797).  Kuypers was born in the Netherlands, studied at Groningen, and then spent the years from 1753-1768 in Curaçao before making a radical change in scenery when he was called to minister in New York (1769-1771) and then Hackensack and Schraalenburgh, New Jersey (1771-1797).  This means that he and Franklin (1706-1790) overlapped both chronologically and geographically, so it is possible that the two encountered one another, but there is no established link or likely social connection that would indicate that they did meet.

Warmoldus Kuypers signature

“Warmoldus Kuypers Zyn Boeck” Inscription on front pastedown of Penn Libraries BT131.B67 1762

When we are able to identify the traces of provenance–inscriptions signatures, stamps, bookplates, etc.–they help us to understand the stories that physical books have to share with us about the past.  In cases where identification is still uncertain, such as this Franklin signature and initials, these traces of the past provide the opportunity for speculation and imagination about what kind of stories might lie in the unknown corners of history, waiting to be uncovered.  Did Warmoldus Kuypers ask Franklin to sign his book because he wanted the famous man’s autograph?  Could Franklin have read the book at some point himself and left the marks then?  Or is the signature the work of someone killing time by copying Franklin’s signature, or attempting to forge his hand?  Each of these scenarios suggests a different potential story of the intersection between two contemporaries, a famous man and a relatively unknown one, in the margins and fly leaf of a single book.  What do you think the story might be?

Click here to see the collection of all the provenance markings for this book, including the signatures of other, later, owners on the POP flickr site.  Comments on each image provide more information about that particular provenance mark.  Anyone with insight into the identification of or context for these or other provenance marks on POP are encouraged to share their knowledge or their hypotheses in the comments attached to the flickr images or here on this blog.

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