Christie’s October Online auction is led by one of the most iconic works in the entire field of rare books: the Columbus Letter. It is the earliest obtainable edition of Christopher Columbus’s letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella describing the first visit to the Americas by modern Europeans. Printed in Rome by Stephan Plannck in the spring of 1493, it is incredibly rare in private hands. The example being offered by Christie’s was previously in a private Swiss library for nearly a century.
The Columbus Letter and the events it relays truly altered the course of world history—marking the opening of sustained communication across the Atlantic and the beginning of the brutal but epochal transfer of people, cultures, wealth, plants, animals, and diseases known as the Columbian Exchange.
Just eight-pages long, this slim, ephemeral document was printed to convey the news of the moment. It was translated into Latin for widespread consumption and set off one of the first ever media frenzies, spreading rapidly throughout Europe and forever changing peoples’ perception of the size, shape, and possibilities of their world.
Many have described Johannes Gutenberg’s development of printing via moveable type and Christopher Columbus’s voyage of 1492 as the two most momentous events in modern human history. The Columbus Letter sits at the intersection of these two events. Conservatively estimated at $1,000,000-1,500,000 it is poised to become one of the most expensive books ever sold in an online auction.
Other important printed highlights in the sale include a truly sumptuous and fresh copy of William Hamilton’s four-volume work on his collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman vases. This set was owned by both the Duke and the Princess of Courland, contemporaries of William Hamilton and of Emma, Lady Hamilton respectively. Most recently it was owned by the art historian Nancy Ramage, research thirty years ago led to the correct dating of this very publication. There is also a complete set of Cook's Voyages, the Second Folio edition of Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, a first edition of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, and a “Noble Fragment,” a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. Rare science books sold on behalf of the William P. Watson Trust include a complete first edition of Charles Darwin's The Zoology of the Beagle, a large, unrestored copy of Kepler's Tabulae Rudolphinae, and a beautiful copy of Levaillant’s lavish work on parrots. These important scientific works are joined by several rare offprints of Crick and Watson’s work on DNA from the Leonard Hamilton Estate and Heinrich Hertz’s original manuscript of his first major experimental work investigating kinetic energy and the mass of electricity.
The Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Constantin Mamouris is a choice selection of sumptuous bindings and Art Deco livres d’artiste, including André Derain’s edition of Rabelais bound by Germaine de Coster and Hélène Dumas. There is a fabulous section of Napoleon Bonaparte material acquired by Dr. Mamouris in the 1970s including autographs by Napoleon and his circle. The sale includes a significant selection of illuminated manuscripts from the collection of Edwin E. Gordon. as well as very fine books and literature from the Library of Edward R. Leahy. The selection of books from the Leahy library include more works in gorgeous condition as followers of his previous auctions will expect: the last manuscript ever produced by Alberto Sangorski, the masterpiece of Robert Burns’s “Scots Wha Hae”; the gorgeous binding with miniatures by C.B. Currie on the biography of the Plimer Brothers; and a set of fine first edition Pooh books, each signed by author and illustrator and two with additional E.H. Shepard drawings on the title pages.
Our offerings in Americana feature additionally several important manuscripts such as Ronald Reagan's preparation notes for his historic 1980 debate against Jimmy Carter; Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo's first film contracts; a copy of the by-laws of the Central Pacific Railroad signed by Leland Stanford; and a rare letter from Steve Jobs enclosing a chip to an early fan of Apple Computer. We're also pleased to offer a first edition of The Federalist; what is believed to be the only contemporary color photograph of the Trinity atomic tests in private hands; objects related to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; and a fine selection of eighteenth century maps of the east coast of North America sold on behalf of the Glastonbury Historical Society.
The Columbus Letter and the other 356 lots in this auction are open for browsing here: https://onlineonly.christies.com/s/fine-printed-books-manuscripts-including-americana/lots/3378
If you are in New York, the public preview will be at Christie’s Rockefeller Center from 14-18 October from 10am-5pm each day except Sunday. Sunday hours are 1pm-5pm. Please come by to see the books in person and chat with the specialists. Questions? Ask Andrew Darlington, firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 212-636-2665.