Even the words "Aunt Emily," penned on the back, smacked of authenticity. They rang so true, in fact, that the library curator wondered which relative wrote them.
That simple question set off a chain of inquiry that has now exposed both the poem and manuscript as shams by one of this century's most clever forgers, according to The Jones Library and Sotheby's auction house.
"It's an extraordinarily good forgery," Selby Kiffer, a senior vice president at Sotheby's, said Thursday. "The correct paper for the period, the correct writing instrument for the period, the literary tone was quite good - and the imitation of the writing."
The Jones public library bought the two-stanza poem, which was written in faint pencil, through Sotheby's on June 3  with donations from members of the library and the Emily Dickinson International Society. It is a meditation on classic themes of the 19th century poet: death and the meaning of life.
The paper bore the embossed mark of a company that supplied paper to the poet. The handwriting matched the distinct style of the poet in that period of her life, the early 1870s. The work was signed, "Emily."
It had passed through the hands of more than one document dealer, been reviewed by Dickinson scholars, and survived the scrutiny of Sotheby's as a newly uncovered Dickinson work. The library intended to add the poem to its collection of original Dickinson writings and research material on the reclusive Amherst poet, who is regarded as one of this country's finest.
Jones curator Daniel Lombardo wondered, though, if he could find the niece or other relative who wrote "Aunt Emily" on the back. His first inkling of trouble arose when he could find no matching hand among the poet's relatives.
But the real breakthrough came when a Dickinson collector read about the auction and told library staff that he had been offered the poem by Mark Hofmann in the mid-1980s. Then viewed as a legitimate documents dealer, Hofmann was later convicted of two pipe-bomb murders. He said he was trying to cover his tracks on Mormon documents he had forged for profit. In 1987, he was sent to prison for life.
Library investigators began to focus on Hofmann. They eventually found a book on Hofmann with a passing reference to a Dickinson poem he had once supposedly admitted forging. In the book, Hofmann was reported to say he later saw it published as a newly discovered Dickinson work.
A 1986 book on collecting historical documents supplied the last link of evidence: it carried a photograph and transcript of just such a new Dickinson work. Lombardo studied it under magnification: it was the library's, he says.
"He was one of the most skilled forgers in this century. The lengths he went to fool all the experts were extraordinary," Lombardo said.