Stamp Collectors Against Dodgy Sellers
This article is reproduced below in its entirety, thanks to the kind permission of David Jackson of the Chicago Tribune.
(Original article link: http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/lifestyle/chi-0406040155jun04,1,5302665.story?coll=chi-leisuretempo-hed)
By David Jackson
Tribune staff reporter
June 4, 2004
Before he became an international con
artist, Waukegan native David George Holt was a workaday loading dock supervisor
at a Milwaukee chemical company. He showed his wild side by collecting Rod
Stewart albums and growing his sideburns long.
Then, in the middle of a January night in 1991, the 48-year-old father of five walked out on his wife and family. Holt drained the bank account and pocketed $95,000 more by forging his grandmother's signature on her U.S. savings bonds, federal court records and interviews show. He took off for the far side of the world.
Operating from a New Zealand apartment and a post office box in Latvia, Holt used Internet servers based in Russia to confect myriad aliases and swindle rare-book dealers from Chicago to Italy and England, records and interviews show.
In 1998, Holt was extradicted to America and sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for stealing his grandmother's bonds in addition to a separate stock fraud. He never has been charged with the alleged swindles that book dealers call his signature business activity.
"He's got to be some kind of particular crazy. He can't be doing this just for the money," said Ontario, Canada book dealer Steven Temple, general secretary of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.
"I shake my head," said San Francisco book dealer John Crichton, who in 1999 as security chairman of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America turned over booksellers' correspondence with Holt to the FBI. "Why does he keep coming back to us? There's something scary about it," Crichton said.
"A lot of old books are common as dirt. You have to be very knowledgeable to pull something like this over on someone," said rare-book dealer Richard M. Weatherford, founder of the book-selling Web site www.alibris.com. In 1997, Weatherford sent a sheaf of book dealers' letters from Holt to the FBI.
The book dealers' files helped federal authorities track and imprison Holt for unrelated bank and mail fraud charges, FBI agent William Hann said in an interview.
Holt did not respond to letters and phone messages delivered to his Wellington, New Zealand, apartment. But a portrait of the elusive bibliophile emerges from court and business records and interviews with those who know him.
In the trade, his specialty was known as peddling "vapor books."
In e-mails heavily salted with charming, European-seeming malapropisms, he conjured aliases such as elderly Swiss antiquities dealer "Frederik Buwe" and offered precious folios at remarkably low prices, book dealers' records show. "Dave J. Masd," allegedly a Holt alias, advertised a vellum leaf from an illuminated mid-13th Century Bible for only $211 and a copy of the Giant Bible of Mainz (1452-53) in good condition, all pages complete, for $224.
Some of the book descriptions were pirated from the catalogs of legitimate dealers. In several cases documented by book dealers, the Holt alias asked the prospective buyer to wire a down payment to an associate in Russia, then disappeared.
In cases examined by the Tribune, the alleged losses were sporadic and in the hundreds of dollars.
"That's probably been his strategy," said FBI agent Hann, who helped convict Holt for bank and mail fraud. Holt's alleged book crimes were too small to merit the attention of federal law enforcement and -- with victims spread around the globe -- too costly for local prosecutors to tackle, Hann said.
But in the tight-knit world of print devotees, Holt paved the way for waves of imitators and tarnished the culture of trust that sustains the high-end trade, said Philip Salmon, manager of Bromer Booksellers of Boston. "This used to be a handshake business, and now it's a lot more complicated. He is a factor in the turning of that," Salmon said.
In March 2003, as rare-book dealers confronted Holt and publicly exposed his aliases, his behavior turned threatening, according to their accounts.
When Salt Lake City rare-book dealer Ken Sanders sent a taunting response to the alias "Frederik Buwe," Sanders received an ominous message on his answering machine: "This is David. . . . You may know me as David Holt. . . . I am very much looking forward to coming to Salt Lake City and cutting off your balls. . . . Goodbye now."
Sanders -- a specialist in the literary West who currently serves as the unpaid security chairman for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America -- was delighted by the threat: Holt had exposed one of his aliases, making it possible to trace others.
The e-mails of "Buwe" were linked to another questionable Internet-based antiquities dealer, "Prof. Karl Fisher," who gave the address of a Swiss hotel while advertising rare stamps. Both "Fisher" and "Buwe" directed that down payments be wired to a bank account ostensibly controlled by a Russian charity director named "Prof. Elena Nelepova." (The Tribune could not determine if she is a real person.)
"Fisher," in turn, shared a second Russian account with suspected Holt alias "Dave J. Masd." The connections went on.
In March 2003, as Holt traded angry e-mails with Sanders, tragedy struck: New York rare-books dealer Svetlana Aronov disappeared. Her body would surface in the East River two months later before the stunned luncheon crowd at a popular Long Island restaurant.
part of their investigation of Aronov's death, in April 2003, New York police
detectives posted an Internet notice asking book dealers for information about
the whereabouts of Holt or "Buwe." The New York Post wrote a short, 133-word
item on the police request, headlined "COPS EYEING CON MAN'S TIE TO MISSING BOOK
No evidence has emerged publicly linking Holt to Aronov's death. A New York City medical examiner's autopsy could not determine whether Aronov drowned in an accident, suicide or murder. New York police and Aronov family representatives declined to discuss the case.
Five weeks after Aronov's disappearance -- and a few weeks before her discovery -- the alias "Prof. Karl Fisher" added an atypical personal note in an e-mail to a London gallery:
"Sorry for such a big delay in answering, I've been carrying my wife for several months, but unfortunately, she has passed away 2,5 [sic] weeks ago."
This is the story of the soft-spoken loading dock supervisor who turned a genteel industry on its ear.
David George Holt was born in Waukegan on Feb. 27, 1942. Raised by his maternal grandmother after his parents divorced, he grew into a gangly teenager whose pocket protector couldn't shield him from scorn. "He never played catch as a kid," said Holt's cousin Timothy D. Morales.
"He couldn't throw a ball if his life depended on it," said Holt's high school classmate Craig Hook. "He was kind of a loner, the neighborhood geek."
Holt's father gave the teenager a sporty Corvette, but Holt would later try to explain his penchant for fraud by telling a Milwaukee federal judge that he felt unloved as a kid. He dropped out of college after a few months and married Chris Holt when she was 19 and he 21. They had four daughters and a son. A series of lateral career moves made David Holt a $32,000-a-year supervisor at Aldrich Chemical Co.
"David liked to read about things," Chris Holt said in an interview. "When he decided to study something, he really studied it."
And sometimes he was crabby and uncommunicative, downing a six-pack after work and dozing on the couch, she said. "He definitely didn't have friends," Chris Holt said. "He was a loner. He annoyed people. He liked to cut other people down."
In his mid-40s, David Holt got interested in New Zealand and pored through library books. He began corresponding with pen pals, many of them women, Chris Holt said. Starting in spring 1990, he began forging his grandmother's signature on her savings bonds, federal court records show. The woman who raised him was in a nursing home under his care. After 10 months, When Holt had amassed $95,000, he left his wife a note saying the car was in an airport parking lot.
"I left for New Zealand to start a new life," David Holt wrote in a later letter to federal court officials.
"I'm still feeling it," said his son, Daniel Holt, now 25. "If I ever meet him, I have no idea what I'd do. Try to get answers. Punch him out."
Having never worked a day in her life, Chris Holt in 1991 took a $5.70-an-hour job scrubbing the floors at a local hospital where she now is a receptionist.
"I loved my husband. I was not ready to divorce him. He was the one who left," she said in an interview. "With 20/20 hindsight, I can see how controlling he was, and how I was under his thumb. I was married to one person for 27 years, but this was a separate person."
Before leaving for New Zealand, David Holt wrote a letter assuring his grandmother her savings bonds were safe. The loss and huge tax burden hastened her 1995 death, Holt's cousin Morales said in a 1998 court statement and in a Tribune interview. "She went downhill," Morales told the Tribune. Divorced from his wife, Holt traveled to central Europe and Russia, finding women through lonely hearts newspaper ads, FBI agent Hann said. In New Zealand he married a widow, but the union lasted only until 1994, court records show.
During roughly that period, from 1992 through 1995, Holt sold about $55,000 worth of Abbott Laboratories stock left to him by his deceased father, then used a ruse to resell the same stocks, according to his federal conviction.
got money from Uncle Sam, the Tribune found: While living in New Zealand in
1993, he applied for U.S. Social Security disability insurance benefits,
claiming he was stricken with chronic fatigue syndrome and unable to
Without holding a hearing on Holt's case or taking testimony from him, a Social Security Administration lawyer in 1997 recommended in Holt's favor. Holt was awarded retroactive benefits of $60,000 and continued benefits of roughly $1,000 a month, federal court records and an interview with Holt's attorney show. The money was wired to Holt through U.S. embassies overseas, attorney Bernard Kansky said.
In 1995, Holt gained New Zealand citizenship. Two years later, in 1997, FBI agents nearly caught him when he checked into a Miami hotel and ordered a few thousand dollars worth of computer equipment with a credit card number obtained from an antiquarian book dealer, FBI agent Hann said in an interview.
Within weeks, New Zealand police arrested Holt on a U.S. warrant and extradited him to Milwaukee. At Holt's New Zealand apartment, authorities found photographs and letters from women Holt met through personal ads, FBI agent Hann said.
A year later, he was convicted for the stock and savings bond frauds.
From his Milan, Mich., penitentiary cell in 1998, Holt wrote book dealers in Ann Arbor, inquiring about volumes on hermetic philosophy, lorikeets and herpetology.
In January 1999, Holt was released from prison with unsupervised parole. "I will go to Europe and marry a woman I love dearly. She is a psychiatrist," he wrote in a letter to the court.
Within days of his prison release, Holt appeared at Jay Platt's Ann Arbor bookstore and left a list of books he wanted to buy, Platt said in an interview. Having established that tenuous relationship, Holt sold Platt an expensive volume about the Arctic. When the promised book was never delivered, Platt said he successfully stopped payment on his $125 advance check.
"I'm amazed he's still operating," Platt said, "because almost everyone in the trade seems to be aware of him now."
In the five years since his 1999 federal prison release, Holt has engaged in increasingly bellicose face-offs with his nemesis, Salt Lake City rare book dealer Ken Sanders.
A soft-spoken, high school-graduated gentleman of letters with a tangled beard, Sanders found himself cast as the accidental sheriff of an industry roiled by fraud. His unpaid tenure as security chairman of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America has come amid an uptick in Internet-based credit-card swindles and stolen goods fencing. Sanders' combination of book smarts, street savvy and sheer bull-headedness fit him for the job of tracking the wily grifters who prey on aficionados of the printed word.
Last year, after piecing together clues from dealers' files, Sanders helped San Jose, Calif., police put rare-book swindler John Charles Gilkey in San Quentin prison for three years. They caught Gilkey using a stolen credit card number to have a $6,000 edition of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" delivered to a Palo Alto hotel. Sanders describes him as "a collector gone to the dark side."
In a more personal case, Sanders ran on foot after the getaway car of a thief who stole a $1,500 painting of Christ from his shop -- smashing the thief's car window with his fist before tumbling to the pavement. The thief later left the painting at a nearby restaurant.
"Ken's got this element of the Wild West in him," said his friend Ken Lopez, a Hadley, Mass., bookseller. "He doesn't play the victim easily."
"I get in their faces," Sanders says.
He got his start in the rare-book trade as a child who scoured local drugstores for color-saturated comic books -- reselling the Marvels on school playgrounds. During the 1980s, Sanders' Dream Garden Press published novelist Edward Abbey and cartoonist R. Crumb, and his house was used to publish the radical environmental newsletter Earth First! And over the years, Sanders says, "I've gotten kind of adept at tracking crooks, I guess."
Sanders says he tracked Holt's electronic fingerprints on e-mails sent by "Buwe" and other, more mysterious personalities. "He's a phantom," Sanders says.
In 2003, led by
Sanders, book, stamp and coin dealers began to correspond with "Buwe" in the
hopes of luring him to daylight.
"Our system shows definite signs of working as we had hoped," book dealer Temple wrote in a February 2003 Internet posting.
Two months later, New York City police asked Sanders to post a notice for help from "anyone with information regarding the disappearance of Svetlana Aronov . . . or information about David Holt, a.k.a. Frederik Buwe."
At the same time, Sanders baited Holt with what Sanders would later call "savage . . . over the top" e-mails. On May 2, 2003, Sanders sent an alias a short e-mail listing the things Holt had been selling -- "Books, coins, stamps, cars. It's a small world, Dave," Sanders wrote.
A day later, Sanders got a disturbing reply from the alias: "We are working good, right? Please add to the books, coins, stamps, cars also loans, credits, deals, signed on behalf [of] our mutual name Ken Sanders :--)."
After that, antiquarians began receiving questionable offers from "Kennet Sanders Rarities."
The real Ken Sanders was forced to post another bulletin to book dealers: This was only Holt, Sanders wrote, "offering the usual assortment of fraudulent merchandise he doesn't own."
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune
Swiss image stealing scam: Karl Fisher, Frederik Buwe - David Holt