Perhaps chief among the gems in The Willis Collection is a unique and extraordinary item of historical significance, a superb fifth edition of the Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African. London: 1803, with 15 original autograph letters signed by Sancho, who was born into slavery in the first part of the 18th century, and was a menial servant in an English manor until his brilliance was recognized by the Duke of Montague. He eventually achieved fame and respect in British society as a writer, composer and actor. It is estimated at $25,000+.
Perhaps of equal importance to Africana scholars and collectors is an amazing 1588 first edition of the very first printed atlas of Africa, Geografia di M. Livio Sanvto distinta in XII libri, by Livio Sanuto, with 12 double-page engraved maps of Africa. It is estimated at $10,000+.
“Serious collector of early geography will know immediately how important this book is,” said Gannon, “Sanuto is one of the most important early geographers and this is one of the most important sixteenth century publications on Africa.”
John Ralph Willis was born in 1938 in Lorain, Ohio and received his BA in History from the University of Arizona in 1960, and his MA from Boston University the following year. In 1962-63 he was an administrative officer in the Peace Corps, focused on a number of African countries, particularly Ghana and Sierra Leone, taking the first volunteers to those countries. He continued his studies in African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, completing his Ph.D. in 1970. By this time he had also embarked on an academic career, teaching at colleges across America, and in Europe, before advancing to Full Professor at Princeton in 1984.
Willis began collecting rare books on Africa while he was in Boston earning his MA. His collection grew out of his frustration with American librarians jealously guarding the rare books in their libraries and thwarting his desire to read them. In the early 1960s books on Africa were difficult to find in the U.S., and the years he spent in England and Paris studying and teaching gave him better access to colonial records and books recounting European explorations of Africa. On numerous trips to West Africa John was able to obtain photocopies of Arabic manuscripts written by local leaders that helped reveal the Africans’ view of the colonial period and provided the basis for his scholarly research.
Books by people of African descent, published in England and the United States, such as Phillis Wheatley, Ignatius Sancho, and Olaudah Equiano were also of particular interest to Willis, as they refuted the notion of the “ignorant savage.” He furthered his interest in the printed word and the collecting of it by becoming a Fellow of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Being a lover of books, he also made it a mission to collect and preserve as many rare pieces of Africana as he could.
“By simply looking at the selection we have in this auction,” said Gannon, “you can see that Willis fulfilled that mission with his typical brilliance.”
Further highlights from the John Ralph Willis Collection of Rare Africana include:
Eduardo Lopez, Filippo Pigafetta, A Report of The Kindgome of Congo, a Region of Africa. London: 1597: First edition in English, with some of the earliest illustrations of Africans printed in Europe. Estimate: $5,000+.
James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773. London: 1790: First edition. Five quarto volumes containing fifty-nine engraved plates. Estimate: $5,000+.
Richard F. Burton, Zanzibar; City, Island, and Coast. London: 1872: Rare association copy of the first edition, inscribed by Burton's wife to her uncle on the front free endpaper. Estimate: $5,000+.
John Martin Bernatz, Scenes in Ethiopia... London: 1852: First edition. Two oblong folio volumes bound in one, with two illustrated title pages, a geographical map, and forty-eight colored and tinted lithographs. Estimate: $3,000+.
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