Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2020 Issue

Every Auction Has a Story and sometimes they get dark

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On 16 May 1870 the inventory and collection of Edward P. Boon was offered at auction at Leavitt Strebeigh in New York.  It was an important sale because of its contents and significant that its consignor selected Leavitt rather than Bangs, who was the perennial leader in New York auctioning collectible paper.  Boon's first sale was committed earlier while two other sales remained to be confirmed.  Bangs wanted them.  The market was already off and Leavitt in an increasingly strong position.  As an auction power since the 1840’s, Bangs had been through thick and thin periods but 1870 was feeling riskier.

 

In January Bangs watched Charles Gorham Barney’s Bibliotheca Americana sale at Leavitt’s wrapping up knowing they needed and should have had it.  For the full year of 1870 Leavitt would achieve leadership for the first time in the New York market with 30 catalogued sales, while Bangs fall to second with 26 sales after 58 in 1869, having been the leading house in New York in books and collectible paper every year going back into the 1850’s.  Decline must have been difficult to accept.  How would they fight back?  What could be done?  The year had a desperate feel.

 

The auction business in New York sat on a four-legged stool of consignors, auction houses, bidders, and judges. 

 

Joseph Sabin, the leading arbiter, was willing to render judgment.  He who today is primarily remembered for his Bibliotheca Americana, wore many hats during the 1860-1880 period, chief among them as publisher of the Bibliopolist, the leading American auction publication in that era, as well as being a preparer of sale catalogues for Bangs, while occasionally also calling Sabin prepared sales from Bang’s rostrum.  He was very important but was not a neutral party.  And he was in an ideal position to trash the competition.

 

Leavitt Strebeigh had the Boon sale on January 17th and Sabin chose to immediately belittle them because he thought he could have done a better job.  How to do this?

 

He attacked Leavitt’s cataloguing.

 

In February, 1870 he issued a very public complaint in the February issue of the Bibliopolist about Leavitt’s cataloguing for the Barney sale.  Did Mr. Sabin’s animus grow from the tainted root of competition or simply from a clear heart, higher standards, or contempt for lesser beings.  Judge yourself.

 

Mr. Sabin in effect delivered a sales pitch on behalf of Bangs by questioning Leavitt’s competence: 

 

“Bibliotheca Americana” – The auction sale of a collection of books entitled “Bibliotheca Americana,” but which also included some books of a miscellaneous character, was held by Messrs. Leavitt, Strebeigh & Co. on Monday, January 17th and three following days.

 

The appearance of some books in this sale, which come but rarely into an auction, give the collection an unusual importance – a sufficient importance, we deem, to warrant us in pointing out some of the inaccuracies in the catalogue descriptions, for the guidance of future collectors and those at present who cannot correct the catalogue for themselves.

 

First, for the catalogue itself.  It is unshapely – differing in form from all its predecessors, and no improvement.  The pages are numbered at the foot – and the paper is of two different tints.  So much for its physical deformities.  But these are not a circumstance to the literary errors which swarm in its pages – errors of orthography – errors of punctuation – errors of style; - errors of description – and, must we say it?  errors of ignorance.

 

Blunders begin with the title, from which it appears that “local” histories are extraneous to “American” history.  The title reads, “a assortment of valuable books relating to America, also local histories …”  The introductory notice is rather botchy – the books are said to have been “collected by the owner at a great sacrifice of … expense.” (!)  Supposing this to mean “a great sacrifice of money,” would any of the many collectors, who spend annually as much money as this whole collection realized, call that a “sacrifice” which procures them the greatest means of enjoyment?  We must protest against such a mis-application of the term.  In the list “raisonne,”  Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers is said to be upon “Large paper” – the book does not exist in this shape.  The Richmond edition of Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia is described as scarce (!).

 

A rapid survey of the catalogue shows no less than 40 lots misplaced, 50 lots repeated and 30 lots inaccurately described.  After which he identifies in blood curdling detail each and every example over the next one and a half pages of the Bibliopolist.

 

Sorry to say his strategy worked at least with respect to Boon who then gave Bangs two sales on July 18th and October 3rd.  [We’ll add them to the RBH TD if and when we find them.]

 

But given Sabin’s poisoned ground strategy you might think the Boon sale at Leavitt’s must have collapsed in ruin.  Actually, virtually every lot sold and we can affirm this as we have Mr. Boon’s priced copy of the May 16th sale. 

 

Looking beyond Sabin’s vulgar and unethical behavior in 1870 Bangs recovered from the slump in 1870 becoming the single most dominant American auction house in the second half of the 19th century.  Long after, Sabin’s rough manner left some poison that was later remarked.

 

Years later “William Brotherhead (1824-1893) a prominent Philadelphia bookseller whose noteworthy Americana customers included William Menzies, had a low opinion of Sabin.  He recalled him as competent but unprincipled, with a keen bibliographical knowledge of Americana but only at the level of a “skeletonized idea of what books contained.  Brotherhead is especially vituperative about Sabin’s Dictionary of Books Relating to America, dipping his pen in acid to sneer, “The useless remarks, unscholarly criticism, and a malevolent and saturnine spirit permeate the whole of the volumes, destroy the valuable portion, and produce a certain nausea among those that are likely to use it.”  Note **

 

It’s a reminder that rare books is an adult game.

 

All this said, the Boon sale of May 16th, that promoted my examination of that period, is now fully searchable in the Transaction Database.  It’s quite interesting and is worth parsing to see what an important sale in that era looked like:   3,137 lots, on the average about 6 items in each.  The material falls into categories:

 

1.     Very early and later important printings;

2.     Hundreds of recent works focusing on the fading memories of America’s early years;

3.     Ephemera.  By the bucket-full.  You could buy lots for as little as 3 cents and obtain 20 examples.

 

So, if you have access to the Rare Book Hub Databases here’s a link:

 Click Here

 

Here are the top 20 lots by price.  Bidding seems to have been mainly based on emotion rather than on logic:

  Author Title Date Place Printed Price $ Notes
1 WHEELER, CAPT. THOMAS A THANKEFULL REMEMBRANCE OF GOD'S MERCY TO SEVERAL PERSONS AT QUABAUG OR BROOKFIELD   1676 CAMBRIDGE 275 No copies after 1879
2   NEW HOLLAND AND TILE CAROLINE ISLANDS   1836 Boston 50 Only copy found is in this sale
3 MATHER, COTTON THE WONDERS or THE INVISIBLE WORLD: Being an Account of the TRTALS of Several Witches, Lately Executed in NEW ENGLAND: And of several Remarkable Curiosities therein Occurring   1693 Printed first at Boston, in New England, and reprinted at London 40 A copy at Sothebys in 2020 selling for $37,500
4 Joshua Hett Smith ANDRE, MAJOR, AN AUTHENTIC NARRATIVE OF THE CAUSES WHICH LED TO THE DEATH OF       30 Almost 200 records in RBHTD, some later reprintings
5 M'KENNY, THOS. L., AND HALL, JAMES HISTORY OF THE INDIAN TRIBES OF NORTH AMERICA, etc.   1838-44 Washington 36 Lathrup Harper 1914 for $150 converts ito $19,984.95
6 WILLIAMS, JOHN Minister of the Gospel in DEERFIELD   1758 BOSTON: Printed; NEW-LONDON: Re-printed 30 3 auction appearance since 1910
7   BRACKENRIDGE, H. H. GAZETTE PUBLICATIONS   1806 Garlisle, Pa. 35 21 records. Est. current value + $1,708
8 Samuel Smith NEW JERSEY. THE HISTORY OF THE COLONY OF NOVA GESARIA   1765 New Jersey 31 $2,772.  est 3.3 yrs
9   GEORGIA, A VOYAGE TO   1744 LONDON 28 40 records, $8,287 estimated value
10 BURR, AARON BURR'S'CONSPIRACY exposed; and General Wilkinson Vindicated against the Slanders of his Enemies on that Important occasion   1811 Wash. 25 12 records, $2,702.  25+ yrs
11 M'KENNEY, THOS. L., AND HALL, JAS HISTORY OF THE INDIAN TRIBES OF NORTH AMERICA   1838 Philadelphia 26 344 records of complete sets and individual prints
12   BIBLIOTHECA AMERICANA NOVA. A CATALOGUE OF BOOKS RELATING TO AMERICA   1844 London 24 No records found
13   BIBLIOTHECA AMERICANA NOVA. A CATALOGUE OF BOOKS RELATING TO AMERICA   1841 London 24 6 related records, none after 19th century
14 RICH, O. BIBLIOTHECA AMERICANA NOVA   1853 London 24 Only this record
15   MICHIGAN. HISTORICAL AND SCIENTIFIC SKETCHES OF   1834 Detroit 21 3 copies on Abe.  About $3,125
16 MAYHEW EXPERIENCE INDIAN CONVERTS; OR, SOME ACCOUNT or THE LIVES and Dying SPEECHES of a Considerable Number of the Christianized INDIANS of Martha's Vineyard   1727 LONDON 24 1 Copy from dealer catalogues from 1890's 
17 M'AFEE, ROBERT B. HISTORY OF THE LATE WAR IN THE WESTERN COUNTRY   1816 Lexington, K. 22 168 records in the RBHTD
18 I. D. (John Davenport) Minister of the Gospell WINSLOW, EDWARD. THE Glorious Progress OF THE GOSPEL   1649 LONDON 24 The value varies widely, a copy appearing every 12.5 years
19 MATHER, COTTON PSALTERIUM Amoricanum. The BOOK of | PSALMS   1718 BOSTON: in N. E. 22 35 records in the RBHTD.  Rare, demand dependent
20 WALTON AND COTTON THE COMPLETE ANGLER; or, The Contemplative Man's Recreation; being a discourse of Rivers, Fish-Ponds, Fish, and Fishing; Written by Izaak Walton   1836 London 21 Values inconsistent.  

 

** This statement is taken from “The Pioneer Americanists” on pages 164-166 published by The Clements Library at the University of Michigan. [2017]

 

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 13:</b> <i>Manhattan Gay Scene Guide 1969, Summer Edition,</i> Mattachine Book Service. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 13:</b> Harvey Milk, 2 autograph letters signed, to Pat Mormon, during US Navy service, 1954. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 13:</b> Oscar Wilde, <i>“The secret of life is in Art,”</i> autograph quotation dated and signed, 1882. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 13:</b> Daniel Abraham, original art for <i>Stonewall Romances,</i> pen, ink & gouache, 1979. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 13:</b> Antonio Lopez, 9 men’s fashion studies, graphite, 1974. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 13:</b> Susie Gaynes & Amy E. Bartell, <i>March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights,</i> 1987. $600 to $900.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 13:</b> <i>Paris is Burning,</i> photo offset poster by Anne Dutlinger, signed by film director Jennie Livingston, 1991. $400 to $600.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 13:</b> Toyen, pen & ink illustration from <i>Marquis de Sade: Justina cili prokletí ctnosti,</i> 1932. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 13:</b> David Wojnarowicz, <i>Untitled (Genet with Dog),</i> mixed media collage. $8,000 to $12,000.

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