The Oath, a pledge of loyalty and duty demanded of all new members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is considered to be the oldest printed document in English North America, produced in Cambridge, Massachusetts, around 1638.
No copy of this diminutive broadsheet was thought to have survived – until 1985 when the Utah documents dealer (and master forger and convicted murderer) Mark Hofmann claimed to have discovered a copy in a New York bookstore.
The simple x 6in (10 x 15cm) sheet fooled scores of bibliophiles including Schiller, who entered negotiations to sell it to the Library of Congress for $1.5m.
It was turned down not because the Oath was deemed a fake but “because of questions about its price, provenance and title”.
Hofmann – the subject of a number of books and documentaries including the current Netflix hit Murder Among the Mormons – pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and is serving a life sentence in the Utah State Prison. He later confessed to prosecutors that The Oath of a Freeman was an elaborate fabrication involving 17th century paper, printing ink created using a 400-year-old recipe and a manufactured printing plate. He planted it in the shelves of a second-hand bookstore so it could be ‘discovered’ and bought for $25.
Hofmann went to prison owing Schiller more than $300,000.
The bookseller is offering the Oath, housed in the slipcover made by the Library of Congress when it considered the purchase, via a court order that allows him to recoup some of that lost money.
He says it will be a relief to finally part with it. “With all its notoriety you could call it the most famous 20th century American forgery. Because it has been a painful experience, I will be relieved that the albatross is gone.”
It has an opening bid of £10,000 as part of Heritage’s Rare Books Signature auction in Texas on June 9-10.