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An Adventure in the Antiquities Trade

The flimsy blue paper was faded, its edges rough where a dull paper cutter had slit the seals. I had carefully unfolded it and slid it into a plastic sheet protector before Mr. James arrived to examine it. I served him English Afternoon tea and settled him in a gently aged leather armchair in the office of my antique document shop before I placed the letter before him.
He held it as delicately as an injured bird. "This is very old," he said, turning it over and looking at the stamp pasted on the old Aerogramme. "The postmark is smudged, but the year looks like 1989. I see no date on the letter. Where did you find it?"
"At an estate sale just across the river in New Jersey. The house had been in the family of a minor writer, who had left it to his granddaughter. She had lived there 60 years, preserving his papers. When I saw this, I thought of your interest in antique international business correspondence and purchased it at once. Most of the other papers were quite routine." The copies of tax returns from the 1970s with hand-written numbers on original Internal Revenue forms had brought a tidy sum from an accountant, but most of the rest had been rubbish. No one collects paper utility bills unless they were to Paris Hilton.
"This reminds me of my grandfather," Mr. James said. "When he started his business he typed all his letters on an old Royal manual typewriter." He held the letter up to the light and pointed. "You can see the holes punched by the period and comma keys, and the uneven impressions of the other keys. People using manual typewriters struck each key with different force, and it shows in the impressions."
I looked and nodded in agreement. "Correspondence was much more interesting before e-mail," I said. Mr. James was the sort of collector who delights dealers because they have very particular tastes and the money to indulge them. "It's sad that today's electronic business documents utterly lack character."
"Indeed," Mr. James replied. "We have lost a rich history. Aerogrammes remind me of how my grandfather began his business."
"What sort of business?" I asked politely. The more I knew, the more I might be able to sell him in the future.
"He was a junior clerk at an international trading company in Lagos in post-colonial times. He felt exploited by the owners, so he decided to start his own firm on the side. He spent hours each night at home typing solicitation letters by lantern-light."
"Like that one?" I asked, realizing why the letter interested him.
"Of course not," Mr. James said, looking a bit displeased. "My grandfather was seeking help to claim an honest reward for reporting criminal activity. The trading company where he worked was over-billing the Nigerian government millions of dollars for imported goods, then hiding their crooked profits in a Swiss bank account. My grandfather had found the account, but he needed someone with an overseas bank account to help him recover the money and turn it over to the authorities."
It was not exactly the same. The text of the letter in Mr. James's hands, written in broken English, promised a 10% reward for helping to arrange the transfer of $43 million. I nodded, politely.
"After sending many letters, my grandfather found an American who helped him recover the money. The government gave them both nice rewards. My grandfather used his reward and his connections to start a new trading company that did everything legally, and then he married my grandmother. I really would love to find one of the letters that he sent, but I know the odds are against that. This one is a few years after he started, and I don't recognize the name, but it's still interesting to me. I can offer you $10,000 for it."
"I'm afraid that would not cover my costs. I need at least $15,000."
"Twelve," said Mr. James.
I sighed and took his offer, sounding as reluctant as I could.
Mr. James thanked me. "This is a wonderful document," he said. "It perfectly captures the nature of international trade in the 1980s. Everyone was looking for a big deal to make them rich. I've seen others. Each one has its own story, and the stories are so much better than you see in e-mail today."
I carefully packaged the aerogramme in a little case, while Mr. James used his mobile phone to transfer the money to my account. It was so much easier than in his grandfather's time. We chatted, and within ten minutes a text message from my bank told me I had received $12,000.
Mr. James looked at his watch, slipped the packaged aerogramme into his briefcase, and paused. "My grandfather said he sent hundreds of letters before he made a connection. I would be very happy if you could find one of his letters. Do you think there is any chance?"
I could not have hoped for more. "What should I look for?"
"My grandfather's name was Mr. Thaddeus James, and he lived in Lagos."
"I can't promise anything, but I will look when I find more papers," I said as we shook hands.
"I understand," Mr. James said. "It was a long time ago, and very few other people know the value of paper documents."
When he was gone, I opened the door that I had told Mr. James led to my storeroom. A sturdy old Royal typewriter sat on a worn wooden desk. The estate sale had yielded twenty-five old blank aerogrammes. I had twenty-four more to go.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 1st, 2010


I've been curious about "Nigerian" scams since I first started getting them in the 1990s. At first some came via fax, and I have copies of a couple that were actually sent by air mail from Nigeria. None were actually aerograms, but it was easy to imagine someone in Nigeria typing out such letters before they had access to copiers, and the story was born as I wondered what people would think about them in the future.

- Jeff Hecht

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